Using Science Content Appropriate Reader Response Strategies to Measure Student Growth

This is re-posted from the Literacy in Learning Exchange – Write for Texas — South Texas and the Valley group

In my last blog post I examined how science teachers can use levelled texts from NewsELA in their science classes to support content development and build that reading rigor necessary not only for life but for passing those all-important standardizes tests. A commenter questioned how a teacher would measure the gains student make using these techniques. Very important piece, thank you!

As science teachers our ultimate goal is always student’s engagement and understanding of our content. So while measuring their improvement as readers and writers is, of course, a worthy aim, always we must measure this progress within the lens of content area growth. So go ahead and google teaching science reading, or measuring science reading, or even science reading strategies. I’ll save you some time – there’s not too much. Narrow it down further and look for help for secondary students. Yeah, that’s actually a tumbleweed that just blew by. Bet you didn’t know Google had those. General reading strategies just simply don’t work when applied as advertised to secondary content pieces. It doesn’t mean the strategies don’t work – just that you need to get creative!

To measure my students learning after the pieces they read in SSR, I turn to a modified version of another reading/writing teacher’s trick – the reader response. In a typical reader response journal, the student connects what they read to their life, their emotional/affective responses, and to other pieces they’ve read in the past. This exact formula can be a challenge when students are already struggling with new content vocabulary. Additionally many science teachers are thinking “I don’t care HOW they feel about DNA. I need them to know that it’s composed of nitrogen and phosphate! Connect THAT to your life.”

As before incredibly careful scaffolding is required to use reader response in such a way that it measures both student comprehension of the piece AND reinforces content knowledge. Here’s an example:

This article discusses how scientists can use DNA to track food borne pathogens. It ends with the conclusion that someday there may “be an app for that” – keeping you safe from food poisoning. This article directly connects with one readiness standard and two supportig standards in the high school Biology TEKS. (That’s a STAAR tested grade!)

As I described before students are reading the article with their scaffolded support. Relevant vocabulary has been provided for them. As students read they are highlighting the content vocabulary as it appears. As students begin their reader response they have their scaffolded list and their highlighting to direct them towards where the actual content parts of the piece are.

The reader response begins with the personal connection. The best prompt for this maychange based on the passage. For this passage a good personal connection prompt might be: “How could the work described in this article impact your life?” Discourage them from pulling from the article here.
The next response should require them to use their highlighted vocabulary words. Don’t be afraid to use a high level question such as “How can sequencing a genome reduce the effects of pathogens?” These words have been carefully scaffolded by you. Rather than discourage them, they can be taught to use these words as stems to get their started. If a student is struggling, work with them to rephrase the question in their own language.
As students get more comfortable with reader response and using their content vocabulary in context, their responses to the higher level questions will come easier and easier. You can measure your students’ improvements both in writing and reading AND in content area vocabulary through how easily they navigate the response task.

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