Reading Aloud In Science

Sun model (not me)

I’ve been using Reading Reconsidered (Lemov, Driggs, Woolway) a lot with my year 6 class recently. It is an excellent guide to better reading in schools. I’m especially interested in reading in science.

Recently, I read the section on reading aloud. The reasons for using this strategy in class include hearing vocabulary and grammar not used in typical conversation.

I thought: well in science, when I explain ideas to the class, I do use technical vocabulary in science-specific sentences, so reading aloud isn’t as relevant. But I thought I’d better check.

So I recorded myself. It was during the transit of Mercury so we were all outside on the field with my blow-up sun and blu-tac Mercury and Earth. The kids were gathered round. I pressed record and started talking..

It turns out, I don’t talk like a textbook. I do lots of interactive things, like saying “okay?” quite a lot and pausing while presumably looking around for signs of understanding. I rephrase. I explain complex terms. I repeat. I gently remind some children to “track the speaker.” I un-gently remind some children to “track the speaker.” I ask and answer questions. All of the old fashioned ‘recitation method’ – the teachers fallback pedagogy for at least 200 years (which Hattie points out is ineffective and yet still as popular as ever).

Did I use science vocabulary? Yes, but no one had to interpret or recall the meaning: I explained it immediately. Did I use scientific grammar? Occasionally, but immediately explained using simple structures. In fact, I immediately undermined every good thing I said.

What should I have done? If it hadn’t been the first day of the SATs exams (#noexcuses), I like to think I would have done it more like this:

  1. Think about what I hoped to achieve – not just: let’s talk to the kids about transits! (me).
  2. Choose a text. There are loads available (it is interesting to compare NASA, the Smithsonian, Wikipedia and the Sky at Night (BBC)). You will notice how science writers like to use low frequency words (… its last trek taking place in 2006. Due to its diminutive size, … (NASA). The BBC even used the word ‘sojourn.’)
  3. Pre-teach the key vocabulary. There is a new term (transit – as a noun and verb) plus several words that are worth rehearsing (Mercury, Earth, orbit, path, aligned). The text is also likely to use low frequency words (e.g. diminutive) that you may want to point out. We use Jakob Werdelin’s “catch-one-partner” cooperative game to rehearse the use of vocabulary, which is both highly effective and fun.
  4. Watch a video clip about transits (e.g. Sky at Night).
  5. Read the text to the children. Model the following:
    1. Summarising each short section (“In other words…”).
    2. Questioning the text (“I wonder…”)
    3. Re-reading sections if I didn’t understand fully first time.
  6. Science texts are often short. You can afford to read aloud yourself and have pupils read the text aloud several times. Studies show that students make dramatic improvements in fluency, prosody (natural and meaningful) and students demonstrate improved retention understanding of words (Hattie). The first pupil read aloud could be whole class, so that you can correct and emphasise.
  7. Have a question and answer session before we go outside. I ask the pairs to write two questions that they really want to ask. Then each pair asks one question to the class. Students may be able to answer each other’s questions already (and develop better ones).
  8. Go outside to model the transit. I wouldn’t need to say very much at this point because they know what they are looking at. New questions will use correct terminology and demonstrate a deeper understanding.
  9. Come back in to write and explanation text about transits. Students can “magpi” effective vocabulary and grammar structures from the text.

My original (not very effective) teaching activity took 20 minutes. This would take around half an hour. I would have taught key science grammar and science grammar structures (e.g. “Due to its diminutive size, Mercury…”). They would have learnt more, not just about transits (they would have learnt this more effectively), but also more space and literacy. It would have been a dense, rich learning experience.

Scientists don’t talk like textbooks, but students need to read textbooks. Reading aloud lets teachers model how experienced readers read science texts. Reading aloud makes this part of the lesson.


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