How did a focus on reading strategies shape the discussions about texts and images in a grade 4 science classroom?

In this guest blog post, Robert Walldén (Malmö University, Sweden) summarizes his article “Focusing on content or strategies? Enactment of reading strategies in discussions about science texts”, published in Classroom Discourse. The article explores the relationship between general literacy skills and engagement with subject-specific content in classrooms.

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In progressing through schooling, students face the challenge of reading increasingly complex texts. In science teaching, students need to decipher the meaning of technical vocabulary and consider the relationship between verbal text and multimodal elements, such as images, graphs, and models. Many scholars and teachers view it as a matter of social justice to give all students, regardless of their social and linguistic background, the necessary tools to engage with subject-specific texts and concepts. However, views differ on how this is best achieved. Some promote the value of reading strategies that can be used across the curriculum, while others argue that the teaching of literacy skills must reflect disciplinary differences. Previous studies have studied positive effects of infusing reading strategies in science teaching. However, little is known about how teachers’ enactment of reading strategies impacts the way science texts are talked about and jointly negotiated in the on-going practice of teaching. Therefore, I used audio recordings, field notes and photographs to document a grade 4 teacher’s enactment of reading strategies in discussions about science texts throughout 10 weeks. The school was located in a linguistically diverse and socioeconomically disadvantaged area in Sweden. I was interested in how the strategy teaching seemed to align with content learning goals.

The strategies were mostly employed on texts in two well-known science textbooks. The teacher presented the strategies to the students and asked them to practice them in whole-class discussions about the texts. The first strategy the teacher focused on was using text knowledge to support the reading. While knowledge about different genres and linguistic patterns can be a powerful tool for reading, the teacher mostly contrasted the factual texts encountered in the textbook with fictional texts read in language arts lessons. It followed that the discussions based on this strategy highlighted some general feature of factual texts, such as headings guiding the reader by pointing out specific content. However, building on the broad categories of fictional and factual texts meant that the discussions did not touch on the different types of texts used for storing knowledge in the textbooks, such as explanations of processes in physics (e.g., different states of matter) and reports about classes of animals in biology (e.g., molluscs).

The second strategy entailed looking closely at different text features, such as images, headings and words marked with bold fonts. Since these features often represented or illustrated core concepts, such as states of water (physics) and different kinds of animals (biology), this strategy entailed discussions more focused on relevant disciplinary content. However, these discussions were still strongly shaped by the enactment of reading strategies. An example a textbook spread is displayed below, which deals with different states of water.

Figure 1 Persson, H. 2015. Boken om Fysik och Kemi. [The Book about Physics and Chemistry]. Stockholm: Liber, pp. 18-19

Figure 1 Persson, H. 2015. Boken om Fysik och Kemi. [The Book about Physics and Chemistry]. Stockholm: Liber, pp. 18-19

In the discussions about text features, the teacher mostly asked the students to focus on one page. In relation to the above spread, it meant that students commented on the images on the left side which illustrated water in solid and liquid state. They had contradicting thoughts on how useful these images to illustrate the concepts and commented on the fact that “vapor”, the third form, was not visually represented. The students were not asked to pay attention to the right part of the spread which represented vapor by means of a kettle. More importantly, the one-sided reading meant that the abstract model on the left page, representing the transformation between different states, was not discussed. In textbook spreads of this kind, it is common to first introduce concepts in familiar, down-to-earth manner (left side) and then recast them in a technical way (right side). Understanding such shifts between everyday and specialised ways of representing phenomena is crucial to develop knowledge in science. The isolated focus on specific parts of the text material appeared counterproductive in this respect.

What do these findings tell us?

The study revealed and exemplified challenges in infusing generic reading strategies in science teaching. The focus on strategies, general properties of factual texts, and isolated parts of the text material reduced the possibilities to expand on the scientific concepts in the classroom discussions. However, asking the students to pay attention to the function of different text elements, such as headings and images appeared valuable given the multimodal nature of science texts. The study shows the potential of asking the students to consider how key concepts, such as different states of matter, are represented in different ways.  A close attention to the metaphors, everyday contexts, and models used to convey disciplinary knowledge is a reading strategy well worth promoting. Furthermore, the strategy of using text knowledge could be strengthened by making a finer distinction between genres, including their ways of drawing on visual and verbal resources to communicate concepts and processes in science.

Robert Walldén

Associate Professor in Swedish and Didactics, Malmö University 

The full text of this article is available, open access, at https://doi.org/10.1080/19463014.2021.2023598

Published by Olcay Sert

I work as professor of English language education at Mälardalen University, School of Education, Culture and Communication (Sweden).

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