Childrens development and attainment in literacy

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I have found very little research that explores the direct relationship between the development and attainment in achieving scientific outcomes through development of literacy skills, but all science education research agrees that literacy has a fundamental role in science and points out the potential of such approaches. Research by Romance & Vitale (2001), Guthrie et al, (1999), Magnusson & Palinscar (2004) all provide evidence of the effectiveness of using integrated literacy and science approaches citing positive attitudes and increased confidence to learning, increased reading comprehension and engagement.

Science can provide authentic contexts for literacy development. Communication, as in reading, writing and talking about science is a large part of what professional scientists actually do, (Wellington & Osbourne, 2001; Romance & Vitale, 2006), but a reduction in the time allocated to science teaching has occurred due to the pressures of meeting literacy and mathematics targets, and examination requirements. Literacy was regarded since the introduction of the 'National Literacy Strategy' and the 'Literacy Hour' as a stand alone subject. Reading and writing were taught as separate skills rather than being taught within the context of other subjects. As a result, literacy skills have not been taught through the rest of the curriculum to literacy's detriment. This has managed to switch children off literacy, especially boys, who tend to have very poor attitudes to reading, which has led to strategies being put in place in KS3, but not so much in KS1 and KS2.

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According to Ofsted (2008:p44), science has a fundamental part to play in developing children's literacy skills, and can be "a vehicle for promoting and enriching imaginative and cognitive development". Whilst planning, conducting and reflecting on scientific investigations, opportunities arise for children to discuss what they have found out, to put across their own opinions, and to listen to others. This is also an opportunity to consider their own and others ideas help to clarify their own understanding, and also help to identify any misconceptions. This consequently enables children to develop their writing skills through the activities they have been involved in, through different styles of writing. Science can also provide access to a range of non-fiction, and help to develop research skills. Children can learn science through literacy, and learn literacy through science.

The integration of literacy and science can have an effect on the development of scientific understanding? As Norrish & Phillips (2003:p225) state "literacy provides independence in learning science". The skills acquired in literacy enable a child to access the world of science, through reading and writing about it, to talking and communicating about it, which in turn boosts the levels of those literacy skills in meaningful and relevant contexts. Literacy opens up the world to those that are able to take meaning from it. Though science and scientific concepts can be learnt without being able to read or write, children in the early years of school prove this, but the ability to express thoughts and ideas so that others understand, but also to understand and interpret what others say, can only take one so far. "A person can be knowledgeable without being able to read and write … but because of the dependence of science upon text, a person who cannot read or write is severely limited in the depth of scientific knowledge, learning, and education they can acquire." (Norrish & Phillips, 2003:p224), as they will be unable to access the knowledge. The acquisition of highly developed scientific knowledge needs the skills developed through literacy acquisition. "Nobody can acquire a sophisticated level of scientific knowledge without being literate in the fundamental sense, and science itself could never exist without individuals literate in this way", (Norrish & Phillips, 2003, p236).

Many researchers suggest language is essential for effective for science learning, (Cervetti et al, 2006; Douglas et al, 2006; Romance & Vitale, 2001, 2006, Yore et al, 2006). Science has its own language, and is one of the major barriers to learning science is in learning the language, (Wellington & Osbourne, 2001). Pupils need to learn the language of science so they can read critically and evaluate what they read, and develop interests and competence in scrutinising scientific claims and arguments, (Wellington, 1998). The National Curriculum sees the development of language as the key to learning, (Bearne, 1998). The key messages from the 'Use of Language across the Curriculum' document state:

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"enhancing pupils' language skills enhances their subject learning;

using subject-specific vocabulary and patterns of language contributes to developing pupils' language skills;

all teaching contributes to pupils' development of language since speaking, listening, reading and writing are, to varying degrees, integral to all lessons". (DfES, 1999))

"Traditionally language has been seen as proof of learning", (Bearne, 1998:p2). Reading aloud is assumed to demonstrate understanding, and writing is seen as the end point to a learning activity and an opportunity for teachers to assess learning. But because a child may have poor literacy skills, does this mean that they lack understanding of the subject assessed. According to Duckworth (2007) there is a wealth of data that shows children's achievement test scores are strongly related to their prior cognitive functioning and attainment of basic skills but as standardised tests are only a measurement of achievement against the precise attainment targets of the National Curriculum rather than any generalised concept of ability in any of the subject areas, how reliable are these standardised tests in measuring achievement? Because a pupil is a low attainer in one subject does not mean they are low attainers in other subjects. According to the DfES (2005), the overall probability of being a low attaining pupil in science is related more to Mathematics than English, though high attainment in English throughout school is generally agreed as a predictor for high attainment overall (DfES, 2007). According to Emery (2002) and her analysis of QCA testing, it is the accurate use of scientific vocabulary which is normally associated with higher levels of attainment. The QCA (1998) describes the use of correct scientific vocabulary as demonstrating understanding, but does achieving lower than the national average levels for failing to use the defined vocabulary indicate a lower conceptual understanding? And to further confuse the issue, Prest, as quoted by Emery (2002), states, "children often use scientific terminology as verbal wrapping to conceal the fact that they don't understand the concept", they just know when to use a particular word or term. Wellington & Osborne (2001:p9) also confer that children can often answer questions in science without truly comprehending what the vocabulary actually mean. Harlen (2000) further adds to this by stating children enjoy collecting and using technical and scientific terminology they often do not truly understand. The Leicestershire Secondary Literacy Team conducted research on the 1999 SAT's papers on the correlation of reading ages and science SAT's scores, and found that over half the questions were for a reading age higher than the chronological age of pupils taking the test. Pupils that achieved expected, or higher than expected levels often had higher reading ages above their chronological ages and those that did not achieve expected levels appropriate for age often had reading ages below their chronological ages. Their research also showed that when an analysis of open-ended questions was completed, almost all pupils showed scientific understanding but were not marked because of their inability to express their understanding through the use of appropriate language.

But it is not just about specialist vocabulary. Science has its own, very particular language and as Wellington & Osborne (2001) argue that "we can only learn and teach a new language by providing opportunities to practise its use." Furthermore, the language of science includes not only words, but also includes pictures, diagrams, graphs, symbols, animations, tables and charts that is not normally taught with a literacy lesson. As teachers we have to recognise modes of communication and how to use them. Traditionally the view of language in science was that it played a passive role, it was the vehicle in which meaning and information was conveyed. It was believed to have had only a functional relationship, whereas Norris & Phillips (2003) believe the relationship between science and reading and writing is constitutive, essential to the nature of science.

Traditionally, "reading is not seen as an important part of science education", (Wellington & Osborne, 2001:p42). It is now understood that just because children can read and 'decode' a text, does not mean they can necessarily understand it. Reading is too often seen as being able to say the words correctly, especially by children, "younger and poorer readers have little awareness that they must attempt to make sense of the text, they focus on reading as a decoding process, rather than a meaning-making process", (Baker & Brown, 1984:p358). However, children that can decode fast and accurately are then free to think about the meaning of what they have just read. Scientists rate reading as essential to research and as a source of their creativity, therefore how we teach the reading of scientific texts is of the utmost importance, (Norris et al, 2007). Exposure to literature can provide a variety of experiences with different text types where opportunities occur for teaching advanced reading skills.

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Reading involves many skills, but these skills need a meaningful context. Science and reading complement each other as they share the same process skills, such as observing, classifying, inferring, predicting and communicating, (Padilla, Muth & Padilla, 1991). Reading is a problem-solving activity which follows similar steps to problem-solving in science, (Bransford & Stein, 1984).

The traditional role for text in science is to present scientific concepts and facts. Science cannot always be observed firsthand, so scientific text can sometimes provide a context. Information provided by texts should connect, supplement and extend a child's learning experiences in science, not supersede them; rather it should be used as a support. Reading texts within science, combined with firsthand investigations, can help children with reading strategies, as they are more engaged and motivated to find the answers to their questions, comprehension is also increased,(Guthrie et al, 2004; Hapgood & Palincsar, 2007). Romance & Vitale (2006) have found in their studies that achievement, motivation, confidence was increased in both science and reading due to specifically designed reading programmes. Explicit instruction on science reading strategies improves metacognitive awareness, reading comprehension, and science achievement, (Yore et al, 2006).

Reading in science is often more difficult and less engaging for a variety of reasons; it needs the reader to be active, rather than passive. Passive reading tends to be a solitary activity without any clear goals, whereas active reading has a specific purpose. The emergent reader needs to be given a specific target, scaffolded by the teacher and done collaboratively. There a number of strategies that can be used to help children to focus on the important parts of text, on how they are constructed and the ways in which their meaning is created and how it might be recreated, (Wray & Lewis, 1997). DARTs (Directed Activities Related to Text), developed by Lunzer & Gardner in the late 1970's, can be used to locate information; check a child's understanding of vocabulary or understanding of grammar. They fall into two categories, reconstruction, usually problem-solving activities that use modified text, which include cloze procedures, text sequencing, text prediction and text restructuring, and analysis, more about finding specific targets within text, learning how to skim and scan and using underlining or labelling.

As we have discussed earlier vocabulary is an issue. Children with lower levels of literacy can often confuse technical terms, (Emery, 2002). To enable children to be more successful in science, being able to use the correct terminology will enable them to think and communicate more effectively. Wellington & Osborne (2001:p122) believe in adopting a multi-sensory approach to learning new language, a child should first hear a word; then see it written down, supported by a visual symbol, visual prompts are especially useful to poor readers and children with English as an additional language (EAL), then write the word down, seeing how the word is made up of its components, and finally speak the word. Some classroom teachers involve children making their own dictionaries or glossaries, or having word banks or lists displayed in the classroom or on their desks as word mats.

Research suggests much of the writing we do within the science classroom is of a low-level nature, (Wellington & Osborne, 2001). Throughout my time at school and observations of lessons, I found that most writing in science consisted of recording results in tables and writing up an experiment copied from the board and filling in the blanks. This type of writing is very undemanding and of little educational value. These transmissive modes of teaching do not help children to gain any understanding of the subject, and have little educational value, they are only to prove that the child has something written to assess and as a record of their learning. Children must become accustomed with the types of standard writing that are used in scientific texts to inform their own writing, such as reports and explanations, and these must be specifically taught. The scientific genre can be boring and may discourage children from writing in science, especially throughout KS1 and KS2, so there is a need to engage children by involving other genres, especially genres children may be more comfortable with, like narrative or poetry, which in turn can help to aid conceptual understanding but can also show the differences between these styles of writing and for the type of audiences they aimed at. It will also add an element of variety.

Writing in science often involves procedural writing, describing how something was done through a series of steps, children often will instead write a personal recount, a retelling of events through their own experiences. Children need to move to the more formal as they progress through primary school, in preparation for secondary school, and gain experience in writing not only to explain procedures, but also reports, that describe the way things are, arguments, to promote a particular point of view and discussion writing, that presents arguments from differing viewpoints before a conclusion is reached. These are all important texts in science writing, so children must understand how they are structured. A variety of planning and writing frames can be used to scaffold and prompt emergent writers and those who experience difficulties, until they become familiar with the genre and become independent writers.

Many studies show writing "contributes to greater critical thinking, thoughtful consideration of ideas, and better concept learning", (Miller & Calfee, 2004). Writing makes the thinking of a child visible which in turn enables a child to self-assess their own complex content knowledge. It allows them to communicate their thinking and understanding, and share with others, this is important to do before the final writing up process, as any misconceptions can be addressed.

Wray & Lewis (1997) developed a model for interacting with informational texts called the EXIT (Extending Interactions with Texts) that models all the processes above to do with reading and writing. Though many researchers and educationalists mention the above or similar models, such as the use of KWL grids for reading and writing interaction, it is not something I have ever seen within a classroom or school during my experience.

Children also need to be able to talk the language of science, "Discussion is not a well established feature of science classrooms", (Wellington & Osborne, 2001:p83). Science classrooms are often characterised as the teacher talking, sometimes asking questions but not giving enough time for children to really think about what they are being asked. Children are sometimes unwilling to give answers in fear of ridicule, and talk can be stunted or stifled. Talking in science is of vital importance as it is through talk that children use new vocabulary in context, and improve their learning and understanding through talking with peers and adults to share experiences and ideas. Children can learn how to argue and justify their beliefs through interaction with others. Activities such as building collaborative concept maps, true or false statements, concept cartoons can all help to build critical reasoning in science, which is fundamental to their own conceptual understanding of theories and explanations, (Winokur & Worth, 2006).

Investigations in science offer fantastic opportunities for students to think critically and to gain experiences to help them apply what they've read whilst developing their written and oral communication skills. Unfortunately in the past, the time given over to science in school has been drastically reduced, though hopefully with the introduction of the new Primary Curriculum next year, and the re-emergence of thematic and topic work taking prevalence in schools, there will be a chance to increase the time spent on science teaching, which will then provide motivating and engaging contexts for children to practise their reading, writing, speaking and listening skills. Communicating in science can involve many ways of communicating "which can be exploited to engage with different learning styles and abilities", (Wellington & Osborne, 2001). Many American studies that integrate literacy and science such as Romance & Vitale (2005) IDEAS model, the Seeds of Science/Roots of Reading model, (Cervetti et al, 2006), and the CORI (Concepts Orientated Reading Instruction) model, (Guthrie et al, 1999) all advocate teaching science alongside literacy, and all state both literacy skills and scientific conceptual skills are enhanced, achievement is raised along with motivation and engagement.

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