A message to my secondary school self…
In my 18 years of secondary science teaching, I went through at least two swings of the school literacy pendulum. I always prioritised scientific literacy – I just couldn’t make it work.
I wanted to give my students a well written science text to say what I wanted to say, but better than I could say it. Then I would support them to understand it and appreciate every last drop. In 18 years it never happened like that.
I left secondary teaching last year to become a primary school teacher…. and now I understand why my students couldn’t read those texts. In fact I now know four reasons why they couldn’t.
Reason 1: many of my students weren’t able to read fluently and accurately enough to keep the information straight. If you read a word three times to get it right, you’ve lost the thread.
Reason 2: many of my students weren’t confident with the vocabulary. I don’t mean the science vocabulary – that comes under reason 3 – but general English words. Words like however, furthermore and despite will trip a good number of secondary students.
Reason 3: science knowledge. I thought I had this covered, but I bet I didn’t. There are key concepts that students won’t be able to progress without. Have a look at the old KS3 booster material (here) for the sort of concepts I mean. I know there were students in year 11 who still never fully comprehend concepts I taught them in year 7.
Reason 4: unfamiliar styles. Science editors do odd things. Many good textbooks are relentless in chopping the text into tiny pieces and scattering them across the page.The language is different too. Science writers often use the passive tense (the test tube was heated) because it is genuinely important that the experiment gives the same results regardless of who carried it out. Science texts are just different to other texts.
These are the four reasons my science literacy lessons failed. Despite using brilliant texts, my students made better progress if I just taught it. As a secondary teacher, I suspected I was doing my students a disservice. As a primary teacher, I am convinced. In my next two blogs, I describe what I have learnt about reading from my primary colleagues this year. The first blog is about assessing reading quickly and effectively. The second blog is how I could have supported my students better.