First-graders need to read and write—but, they need science, too

Science builds students’ background knowledge, which reinforces reading comprehension
By: | October 17, 2019

Karen Beerer is the senior vice president of teaching and learning at Discovery Education.

There’s nothing like a first-grade classroom during the months of October and November. Students have settled into school, they know the routine and they are bustling with curiosity and excitement. It’s generally about this time that many students are beginning to recognize a lot of sight words in their reading, notice the difference between various types of books, and start to read with expression.

When I was a building principal, the first-grade classrooms were my favorite to visit. Now, as I work with school administrators across the country in my role as senior vice president of Teaching and Learning at Discovery Education, I know that I’m not alone in my love of watching students learn to read and write in a first-grade classroom. In fact, I have a lot of conversations about literacy with superintendents, curriculum directors and principals across the country. When I ask them what goal are they driving towards, their answer is literacy.

School administrators with whom I’ve spoken are focused on making sure all students read and write on grade level. However, this answer leads to a very specific question: What is the best way to teach all children to read? This is a loaded question. Is there a best way for all children to read? What do we mean by best? What aspect of reading do we mean? Are we factoring in comprehension or fluency into this question? Are we factoring in digital reading into this question?

While we as educators are rightly hyper-focused on teaching young learners to read, somewhere along the way, our curriculum became unbalanced. As we added more reading, more writing, and more math, we reduced the amount of time spent on science and social studies. In some cases, we eliminated these content areas altogether, particularly in the primary grades.

However, the research is clear. Students use background knowledge to construct meaning. If a reader knows a lot about a topic, his/her reading comprehension rises. Science builds students’ background knowledge. It’s also engaging, relevant and hands-on, all qualities of best practice instruction for students, particularly first graders.

Adding science

Here are three ways to get started in making science integral to the reading and writing proficiency of not only your first graders but all of your primary students:

Flip the model. Instead of spending large blocks of time on literacy, spend large blocks of time on science. Have students read informative texts, investigate science phenomena, and write explanatory pieces. Use high-quality digital content paired with texts to introduce students to scientific ideas and processes, creating a multimodal experience. Use science to inspire your students to read, write and think like scientists.

Build a reading and writing scope that supports science instruction. Science lends itself to the meaningful and purposeful integration of reading and writing skills and strategies. Teach students strategies like asking and answering questions and skills such as understanding cause and effect through scientific investigations. Use science images like the life cycle of a frog to teach students about sequence. As you build your literature scope and sequence, there are countless opportunities to bring fictional pieces into science instruction. Pair Is Your Mama a Llama? with the science concept of understanding parents and baby animals or Miss Rumphius with teaching students about how to help the environment.

Start with what you know. In first grade classrooms across the country, there is a plethora of great children’s literature. Start there. Support teachers in building science challenges from the problems presented in the stories.

Consider the well-known character of children’s literature, Chicken Little, who convinced everyone that the sky was falling. Even though he meant well, he caused a ruckus. Have students design a well-built nest that Chicken Little can use as a shelter. Through this type of challenge, students engage in inquiry using their reading and writing skills to create Chicken Little’s nest.

Read: Closing the knowledge gap

Or, if you are using a digital service like STEM Connect, which is inspired by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the National Association of Engineers’ Grand Challenges for Engineering, use the existing challenges offered by those services. Authenticity, relevance and of course, literacy are the cornerstones of this type of learning.

These three ideas bring science teaching and learning back into the first-grade classroom to develop better readers and writers. While this is certainly a best practice, let’s make it a next practice—that is, a practice that we know works, but works more powerfully, and more innovatively for our students.

Karen Beerer is the senior vice president of teaching and learning at Discovery Education. A former classroom teacher, she also served as a reading specialist, an elementary school principal, and as a supervisor of curriculum and professional development. Beerer also served as the assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and assessment in the Boyertown Area School District (PA) for 8 years.