Brian Lotze

Reading Strategies for Science Teaching  

June, 2002  

Memo 1:  Framing the Question:  How to Activate Prior Knowledge through Pre-Reading Strategies

For the last several years I have worked with students that were very aware of the world around them as a result of their traditional subsistence lifestyle.  My students were good observers of the natural world and were able to tell me about the relationships they saw in the natural world in detail with very little prompting.  I tried to use this knowledge as a jumping off point for our investigations in biology with success, but often ran into a wall when using reading as a teaching strategy to further understanding.  They had a difficult time connecting what they saw outside with the readings I gave in class.  The fact that I was trying to take them deeper into the knowledge they already had never seemed to sink in.  I also struggled with the fact that my average student had a reading level at least 3 and sometimes more grade levels below where they were in school.  The low reading level meant that I had a seemingly impossible task of getting my students interested in reading through a district adopted text that was at an upper high school reading level.  I feel that where I failed was in activating the prior knowledge of these students before I gave them a reading assignment.  

I believe that if I had been able to activate this prior knowledge and show the relevance of the text (its relationship to the world around them) to my students then I would have had a lot more students buy into the readings.  Besides activation of prior knowledge I feel that it would have been important to first familiarize my students with the text they would be reading.  Familiarization of concepts, vocabulary, and reading strategies would have helped greatly in their comprehension of the readings.  This is not to say that I did not attempt to do this, but that I do not feel that I was successful in my approaches.  

In my readings so far during this course I have come upon several strategies or practices that I feel could help me in preparing my students to read biology texts.  I would like to focus the research of this I-Search paper on pre-reading strategies and practices that help to activate my student's prior knowledge.  As already stated, my students were very knowledgeable about the world around them through their lifestyle.  It was when I tried to relate what they saw on a daily basis living their lives, with what they read in class that I failed as did most of the teachers that I observed in my school.  

There are many good programs available that focus students on activities and investigations of the world around them but they are almost all hands on.  There are even programs set up for Alaskan students specifically but they also do not focus on literature as a means of furthering this learning.  In my classes I spent much of my time using these hands on activities and had success with them, but what I did not do was help my students to improve their reading skills.  Reading a biology text or any technical text where the purpose is to gain understanding of an unfamiliar process, skill, or subject is very different than reading a novel by Steinbeck.  As a science teacher I don't feel that I  prepared my students for this type of reading.  I am hoping to incorporate more reading into my courses in the future but need methods to do so.  I would like to use this research to learn about these strategies by focusing on pre-reading methods of activating my student's prior knowledge.   

Memo II:  Gathering Information to Answer that Question

I have come to realize that this I-search will not be specific to a particular subject, but will incorporate broad strategies and practices that I can use in all of my classes.  In my first memo I had narrowed the scope of the research down to pre-reading practices but I now feel that the whole subject of reading strategies is more important for my own knowledge base.  The more I have learned about reading in the content area and the strategies and practices used to promote good reading comprehension, the more I feel I still need to learn.  Because of the type of teaching assignment I have next year and my lack of prior knowledge of reading strategies, I feel that a general knowledge of many different strategies will help me best.   

I have been a good reader for many years and believe that as a result my teachers never taught me strategies to improve my reading.  I also never received training in my university teacher education courses about strategies to help readers.  I have been amazed at some of the strategies we have been examining not for their complexity, but for their simplicity and the fact that I never thought to use them.  My thoughts are still coalescing about how I plan to incorporate what I have learned so far into my teaching, but let me share a little about what I have found and what I am doing with it.  As I have been examining the many websites that deal with strategies related to reading I have shifted the focus of my research from the application of a few specific strategies to locating and compiling a wide variety of strategies.  Although I will never use all or even most of the strategies I have found, the finding of them has deepened my understanding of the variety of methods and strategies that I can employ.  It will allow me to pick and choose a few strategies that I do like and modify others into a form that will be more useful to me in the future as I discover what I will be teaching next year.   

The greatest difficulty I have faced in my reading has been to differentiate between the different strategies and figure out what they should be used for.  As I have researched the strategies I have written brief reviews of some of the websites I have been viewing.  I have also started to create a list of strategies in table form that reference what websites I found them on and a couple word summary about what I think they would be best used for.   Because I have focused this I-Search on finding strategies and not their use, I am planning on using the website reviews and strategy table as the final written record for this I-search process.  

As a science teacher, my training as a teacher did not include ways to teach reading.  As a secondary teacher the attitude among most of my subject colleagues has been that students should already be ready to read in our classes.  Next year I will be neither a science teacher or a secondary teacher specifically but a general teacher of all ages and all subjects and I will have to teach reading.  Through my experiences over the last several years with very low reading level students I knew the outlook of most of my colleagues was wrong but did not know what to do to address my students needs.    Because I have not had experience as a reading teacher I feel that the continued exploration of what strategies there are and how to use them in the broadest sense will benefit me more than a subject or unit specific strategy to teach a few specific lessons.   

Memo III: Summary of Learning  

Throughout this I-search project I have struggled with how I will incorporate the strategies and practices I have discovered into my classes.  It is not a lack of focus so much as a lack of direction which is not self inflicted, but comes as a result of not knowing what I will be teaching next year.  Perhaps the most important thing I have learned is that reading is not simply a matter of learning the words on the page but a process of connecting preexisting knowledge and concrete reading strategies to learn unfamiliar text.  I had always assumed that if I went over the unknown words that my students would be able to read the text.  What I have discovered through my research of strategies are practices that I as a good reader do unconsciously.  This has lead me to realize that maybe it is not my students understanding of the printed word but their understanding of how to approach that printed word that I need to work on in my classes.   

I have always known that reading in biology is much more difficult than reading in an English class because of all the added technical terms, but what I am discovering is that there are a lot of contextual concepts as well that may make the reading indecipherable even if the words are crystal clear.  This was demonstrated recently in a selection of text given in another class with no contextual clues.  Many of the students in class (all teachers) were unable to figure out what the piece was talking about not because the language was difficult, but because they had no framework to base their reading on.  When the instructor said one simple word, the whole piece suddenly made sense because there was now a framework to base our understanding on.  Similarly in my classes I have come to realize that I had better be addressing the contextual understanding of my students before I expect them to learn the information in the text.   For me this means using strategies that help to connect my students preexisting knowledge with the new information I expect them to learn.  It also means building up a preexisting knowledge base when one does not exist.   

As a beginning teacher I know that I still have a lot to learn and at times it seems overwhelming.  The more classes I take the more aspects of this career that I realize I need to consider.  Teaching I believe is not so much a job as it is an art that will take many years for me to figure out if I ever do.  As I continue to figure out how to teach I know that I will need to broaden my knowledge and step out of my comfort zone.   I will have to continue to delve into areas that I previously thought did not affect me and try to incorporate them into my teaching.  As a good reader I must try and analyze what I do unconsciously to create in my students the self-motivation that is sometimes necessary to read that which is difficult and to become for themselves good readers.   

Brian Lotze