ELA + STEM = A Formula for Better Student Reading Skills

We often think of them as separate subjects, but you can use STEM as an inspiration and foundation for building reading skills in your classroom.

By the time students reach middle and high school, reading for pleasure is a rarity. Seldom do I see a student pull out a book when they have free time in the classroom. Reading has become limited to quick texts, emails, Twitter feeds, and hashtags. If there is a novel in their hands, it is usually one that is the new hit blockbuster on the big screen. This may have large impacts on student literacy, vocabulary, confidence, and overarching reading skills. How can we as STEM teachers help turn this around? The answer may lie in a partnership with your language arts teacher.

As previously discussed in “ELA + STEM = A Formula for Better Student Writing Skills,” forming a team with your language arts teacher can both engage and motivate your students to strengthen their writing and reading skills with the use of STEM topics and language arts conventions. As a team, you can develop, implement, and assess units that are centered on building literacy. This results in an increase in student confidence when reading technical texts that they encounter in and out of the classroom, including major assessments.

Novels

reading skillsUsing a novel related to STEM topics of study is a great way to capture student interest while developing reading skills. The novel can be read as part of either the language arts or STEM classroom, with connections made in both. For example, in the STEM classroom you could tie in events from the novel, reflect on its accuracy, discuss characters, and build vocabulary. Novels make a great basis for a large unit or a driving question for problem-based learning.

Some of my favorite fiction and nonfiction books to use in the STEM classroom include:

• Code Orange, by Caroline B. Cooney
• The Bomb, by Theodore Taylor
• The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot
• Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
• Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, by Susannah Cahalan
• Breakthrough, by Jack Andraka
• The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements, by Sam Kean
• Novels written by author Carl Hiaasen for upper elementary and middle school
• Novels written by author Michael Crichton for high school

For additional ideas, check out our STEM Reading List. Still want more? Each year the National Science Teacher’s Association publishes a list of Outstanding Science Trade Books that is a great source of inspiration.

Short Stories and Poetry

reading skillsIf the use of a novel seems daunting, start with a shorter piece of fictional writing to help improve your students’ reading skills. With your language arts teacher, discuss any known authors or pieces of writing that may relate to your unit. Poetry can provide a unique visualization of scientific concepts for your students, challenging them to use their imagination. Topics may include forces, energy, the human body, the environment, water, and genetic engineering, among many others. Draw on the central themes in the STEM classroom, considering scientific accuracy and application. When the rules of science may have been bent, reflect on why, and how this added to the overall message.

Take this one step further by having your students create their own short stories or poetry inspired by STEM. You can hold your very own poetry slam based on STEM, much like the Technimetric Poetry Slam held annually at NC State.

Nonfiction Text and Periodicals

reading skillsDeveloping nonfiction reading skills is also crucial for our students. I would often find that students would struggle during an exam not because of the content, but because of the lengthy text that accompanied some questions. If students are not confident in their reading skills, seeing a paragraph of text on an assessment may cause them to skip the question, or just guess the answer. Bringing more nonfiction text into the STEM classroom, and STEM-themed nonfiction text into the language arts classroom, will provide more opportunities for students to practice this skill.

In my own classroom we did this each Friday, lovingly named “Freaky Story Friday.” I would try to find an interesting article that related to the content covered during that week—the stranger, the better! We read about brain-eating amoebas, a genetic mutation that makes you look blue, armor made of a non-Newtonian fluid, the Johnstown flood, and battles over man-made diamonds. As each week passed, more and more students would volunteer to read out loud, and I saw their confidence grow.

Some sources I regularly use are:
Newsela
Science Daily
Science News
Flipboard

STEM and ELA Make a Great Team

Teaming up with your language arts teacher will form a strong partnership that will benefit your students all year long. With their added support, you can feel confident teaching your students writing and reading skills, while still hitting on your unit objectives. Click here for more tips on how to increase your students comprehension and reading skills.

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Alexandra D. Owens

Alexandra Owens is a STEM Education consultant based in Charleston, SC. She taught middle school science for many years and is now completing her doctorate in STEM Education at Texas Tech University.

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