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Reading & Writing in the Disciplines

Bringing It All Together – Science

Integrating Reading and Writing

The previous units highlighted ways in which reading and writing can be integrated into different aspects of science instruction. Because reading and writing form part of a broader literacy experience, speaking, listening, viewing/observing, and importantly thinking and inquiry are also essential elements. In this unit, the emphasis is on helping students become effective overall science communicators, to integrate their reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills to foster critical thinking about scientific content. Too often, students encounter writing as a task that they have to do to “prove” that they’ve learned something, rather than writing as the natural product of their learning.

There is certainly a time to focus on reading skills—and independently on writing skills—but as students gain proficiency, the next level is for them to always be reading and writing. Cultivating a classroom norm where students easily and frequently move back and forth without really compartmentalizing reading and writing as separate literacies can have a powerful impact. Reading and writing are mutually supportive skills that develop in an iterative process that the most accomplished professionals use throughout their lives. Emphasize with students that the methods of close reading—marking up text, taking notes, forming questions—are writing and can be a precursor to more formal writing.

Apply: If you are currently teaching, consider assigning students a lengthier passage for close reading. Have them mark up the reading with the standard highlights, underlines, and marginal notes they typically use. Prepare a simple graphic organizer for them to transfer their markups. The organizer should have just a few sections, such as important passages I underlined, questions I wrote, unclear vocabulary I circled, and ambiguous passages I checked. Tell students that their close reading is the basis for an essay that they will write. Encourage, and give them time, to revisit their close reading. The essay could be on the meaning and importance of what they’ve read, or on what an interesting next experiment would be, or any number of other topics that would arise from their close reading. Be clear that close reading is part of the process of writing.

Video: Watch Using Scientific Discourse to see how a 10th-grade biology teacher has her students apply their scientific literacy skills to explore and reason through a problem that the class explores as an inquiry team.

Reflect: Some teachers might find it challenging to assess individual student work on an open-ended problem involving lots of teamwork. Write down some strategies that you’ve used in the past for assessing this kind of work. Have you ever used peer assessment?

Effective communication is largely based on empathy. As a writer, you need empathy for the impact that the content and the style of your writing has on the reader. As a reader, it’s about understanding the writer’s intent, both in choice of content and prose style. Students need to learn to cherish their own writing. The only way to do that is to become an ever more careful and engaged reader, perhaps especially of their own work. Caring about your craft enough to polish it means learning to invite and embrace criticism and not be defensive. Many writers would be jealous of the opportunities that the classroom affords for immediate, fresh, and spontaneous feedback.

Video and Reflection: Watch Fostering Close Reading to see how a 6th-grade science teacher integrates reading, writing, and peer interactions while focusing on close reading.  You may want to take notes on the questions below.

  • Before you watch: Do you have a standard rubric and set of symbols for your students to use to mark up text during close reading? What do you think the connection is between verbalizing and writing ideas?
  • Watch the video: As you watch, notice how Ms. Miles uses language frames and supports productive peer interactions.
  • Reflect: Think about how you might apply the teacher’s use of a clipboard to assess how her class is doing overall and the way in which she periodically injects mini-lessons into the close reading exercises. How do you decide when it’s a good time to interrupt active peer interactions?


Most students will make gains in their reading and writing proficiency through time and practice. However, following an explicit gradual release of responsibility model will accelerate student gains and maximize the overall literacy level of the class as a whole. By explicitly modeling effective reading and writing strategies and then following a sequence of steps where you gradually provide less and less coaching, and then progress to peer interactions and autonomous work, students will more fully engage and take responsibility for their own reading and writing. As students become more confident about their reading and writing, they will accept peer and instructor feedback and come to fully appreciate how essential it is to improving the quality of their work.

Two previously mentioned models (the lab meeting and the journal club) are useful formats for a classroom of students advancing to intermediate scientific literacy and beyond. You can model how a short presentation is made, encouraging interruptions and questions, and provide students with a rubric for taking notes. You should openly discuss how you prepared your presentation and how long it took. As audience members, the students are learning to actively listen, while also taking notes, and observing how a presentation is made, including how a presenter responds to questions. As students give their own presentations, they each come to appreciate the challenges in giving a good presentation, while the audience continues to hone their questioning and note-taking skills. As students take turns, practice and skills for the entire class strengthen irrespective of individual differences in literacy levels. It’s possible to add components of collaborative work to the process, where students compare notes, or the instructor leads a whole class exercise to collate and categorize the variety of questions that arose from the lab meeting or the journal club.

Video and Reflection: Watch Peer Teaching again. You may want to take notes on the questions below.

  • Before you watch: How do you differentiate instruction for students of differing interests and abilities? What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of having students present in class?
  • Watch the video: As you watch, notice the quality of the student presentation and the audience questions. How could less vocal students be encouraged to give a presentation or ask questions?
  • Reflect: The student presenting does not always use the appropriate vocabulary in his or her presentation but seems to have good overall understanding of the topic. Some of the audience questions reveal misconceptions or incomplete understanding. In what ways do you think that this does or does not undermine the value of the activity?


In Unit 7, the importance of revising, rewriting, and reversioning is discussed, including some strategies for helping students understand that such work is not repetitive, but an essential aspect of the writing process. These aspects of changing and polishing writing are part of the broader editing process that becomes increasingly important as students advance their literacy skills. Editing is a much bigger and more important aspect of literacy development than simply revising.

There are different forms of editing, such as copyediting, which focuses on correcting spelling, punctuation, grammar, and to a limited extent word choice. But here, the focus is on substantial editing, which can play a very important and underappreciated role in the creative process of writing. In substantial editing, an editor may make suggestions for moving blocks of text, for large deletions or editions, and may even provide extensive rewriting along with in-depth comments. The role of substantial editing is extremely important in the publishing of nonfiction, including textbooks; the production of media, such as radio, television, and films; and even for fiction in print and media. Many people would be surprised at how radically good editing can change and improve a piece of work. Students need to learn to welcome editing as well as develop editing skills that they will apply to the work of their peers and even to published material.

Apply: Rewriting a passage (perhaps from the textbook) and putting it into their own words can be a useful literacy exercise for students. However, consider taking such an exercise to the next level. Challenge students to rewrite a published passage not by re-creating it in their own words but by editing it with the explicit goal of improving its clarity. Can they improve its flow? Maybe shorten the passage? It’s okay if they don’t manage to improve the text.  The effort will improve their appreciation for reading and writing and reinforce how much choice there is in the craft of writing.

Rigorous editing is central to good scientific writing. Even though most scientific writing has a primary author, is a collaborative process that typically includes a surprising number of editors. These are peer scientists both junior and more senior than the author, close colleagues, and individuals who are less familiar with the content. Substantial editing may include suggestions to carry out additional experiments, or comments that conclusions have been reached in error or are insufficiently supported.

Students too often experience editing as the grading of their papers, with marks of things they’ve done wrong, so it is important to use peer feedback and rewriting to teach students to embrace the process. Some novice writers may uncritically accept all editorial feedback, which is a natural response to having the writing graded. However, simply accepting all the changes of all editors actually undermines the value of the editorial process. A writer needs to learn how to adjudicate the various editorial inputs they receive and not allow editorial feedback to take away from the ownership of and responsibility for their writing. Other writers resist the editorial process, feeling that it impinges on or even appropriates their creativity. However much a writer may complain about or resist the editorial process, in the end, few professional writers, perhaps particularly in science, would deny its value and importance for honing the clarity of their writing.

Video and Reflection: Watch Engaging Students in Authentic Reading and Writing to see how a 10th-grade literature teacher uses peer interaction, genuine criticism, and engaging writing topics to push students past the sophomore slump in literacy development. You may want to take notes on the questions below.

  • Before you watch: Do your students feel that science is relevant to their daily lives? How would it change your students’ work if they were writing for publication?
  • Watch the video: As you watch, consider how you would interpret Ms. Ramos’ comment about students finding their identity as readers. How is Ms. Ramos effective in engaging students, including those who don’t consider themselves academically high achieving?
  • Apply: If you are currently teaching, organize your students into teams to decide on some themes for a science blog. Then, have students draft and edit blog entries that must pass editorial review by other students to get posted. Challenge the students to recruit readers and commenters on the blog.


Science focuses on inquiry and problem solving. There are strong advocates for an approach in science education called problem-based learning (PBL), which emphasizes students working in groups on open-ended problems. Students can play a role in defining the scope of the problem and then, in a largely self-directed fashion, conduct literature research and laboratory research to explore the problem and obtain answers to specific questions arising from their analysis of the problem. Problem-based learning is an excellent way for students to practice authentic scholarship in science even if they don’t have the opportunity to do lab experiments. The most important role for the instructor is probably in helping to define the problem at an appropriate scale and then, as the process unfolds, to provide guidance and feedback within a framework that sets up milestones and norms—such as regular team meetings and presentations on progress. Practitioners generally think in terms of shifting from the role of a lecturer delivering content to a coach for guided inquiry.

Many instructors are under pressure to cover a stipulated curriculum and to prepare students for high-stakes testing. However, it is likely that there’s an appropriate place in the curriculum to spend at least some time using the PBL approach. Although the approach may not cover content the way that some curricula stipulate, it can be very strong in developing literacy skills and also in process and practice of science skills, which are important components of the Common Core State Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards.

Problem-based learning scenarios tend to feature broader, more practical, or everyday types of science problems. Thus, they are more naturally interdisciplinary both across the sciences, but also potentially across science, math, history, social studies, and language arts. For example, students might be interested in a question such as, Where do dogs come from? This could lead to related and more specific questions, such as, How many breeds of dog are there? When and where in the world did specific breeds arise? How did each breed acquire its specific characteristics? And, finally, Why are dogs so much more loyal than cats? The answer that “dogs come from wolves” will likely be an important conclusion that is part of the findings that student teams will support with photos, with genetic evidence, in writing, and in various presentations. Different teams can choose and be guided to look into historical sources on various dog breeds. Other teams may focus on genetic evidence and evolutionary conclusions. Another group might become interested in dog behavior and a comparison with the behaviors of wild wolves. The students will discover literature on dog genetics; on the history, paleontology, and anthropology of domestication; and on diseases of dogs. They will also find numerous stories and poems about dogs. The role of the instructor is to foster effective teamwork and to help guide teams in useful directions while providing project milestones. Potential topics for PBL can be made to be more curriculum directed or almost completely open ended: a disease, a particular mineral, or the physics of sports are examples. The main challenge is in framing the guiding question or problem well as the project is initiated.

Video and Reflection: Watch Using Document-based Questions for Historical Writing to see how a 12th-grade history teacher has students analyze primary and secondary documents and uses peer interaction to move students toward a professional level of scholarship. You may want to take notes on the questions below.

  • Before you watch: Would your students recognize the difference between a primary and secondary source in the scientific literature? How would they identify their textbook? If you have students write a research paper, how many sources do you typically require? Do you require them to use some primary resources?
  • Watch the video: As you watch, notice how the students interpret and support each other in responding to Ms. Westenberg’s comments. Also note how Ms. Westenberg helps students explicitly delineate and clarify their points without overtly instructing them.
  • Reflect: Consider using methods like these to have your students take more responsibility for their own learning. Note down ways that hands-on experiments and activities could be rolled into this approach and perhaps expanded to larger problem-based learning projects.


Toward the beginning of these units on teaching literacy skills in science, it was emphasized that inquiry is at the heart of the scientific enterprise. Professional scientists don’t generally refer to what they do as inquiry. They call it research, and recognize that asking questions drives everything they do. In the classroom, helping students develop their inquiry and literacy skills is a highly effective way to learn science. Even in the face of high-stakes testing that may emphasize “facts” over deeper conceptual understanding, literacy and inquiry-based learning facilitate future learning and are generally a better path toward long-term retention of learning.

The importance of peers and the role of the scientific community have also been emphasized in honing the communication skills of scientists, which include: writing and presenting as well as reading, discussing, listening, and editing. The classroom, and the variety of peer interactions that you foster, replicates the settings of scientific research to great potential advantage.

As your students’ literacy skills develop and their disciplinary interests mature, it is very likely that you will have helped nurture some of the next generation of highly accomplished scientists; they will be even more effective scientific thinkers and communicators. For all students, including those who do not pursue advanced studies in a scientific or engineering discipline, the habits of mind of following evidence, being skeptical, and asking questions will serve them well through a lifetime of learning.


Cervetti, G. N., Pearson, P. D., Greenleaf, C., & Moje, E. (2013). Science! Literacy! Synergy! In W. Banko, M. L. Grant, M. E. Jabot, A. J. McCormack, & T. O’Brien (Eds.), Science literacy and our nation’s future (pp. 99–124). Washington, DC: NSTA & STANYS.

Cervetti, G., Pearson, P. D., Bravo, M. A., & Barber, J. (2006). Reading and writing in the service of inquiry-based science. In R. Douglas, M. Klentschy, & K. Worth (Eds.), Linking science and literacy in the K–8 classroom (pp. 221–244). Arlington, VA: NSTA Press.

Cervetti, G. N., & Pearson, P. D. (2012). Reading, writing, and thinking like a scientist. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 55(7), 580–586.

Cervetti, G. N., Hiebert, E. H., & Pearson, P. D. (2010). Factors that influence the difficulty of science words. Santa Cruz, CA: TextProject, Inc.

Moje, E. B., & Speyer, J. (2008). The reality of challenging texts in high school social studies and science: How teachers can mediate comprehension. In K. Hinchman & H. Thomas (Eds.), Best practices in adolescent literacy instruction (pp. 185–211). New York: Guilford.

Ossola, A. (2014, Dec. 12). How scientists are learning to writeThe Atlantic.

Pearson, P.D., Moje, E., & Greenleaf, C. (2010). Science and literacy: Each in the service of the other. Science, 328, 459-463.

Pechenik, J. (2015). A short guide to writing about biology (9th ed.). London: Longman.

Shanahan, T., & Shanahan, C. (2008, Spring). Teaching disciplinary literacy to adolescents: Rethinking content-area literacyHarvard Educational Review, 78(1).

Solomon, T. C., Van der Kerkhof, M. H., & Moje, E. B. (2010). When is a detail seductive? On the challenges of constructing and teaching from engaging science texts. In A. J. Rodriguez (Ed.), Science education as a pathway to teaching language literacy. Rotterdam, The Netherlands: Sense Publishers.

White, H. (2011, Winter). Problem-based learning. Speaking of teachingStanford University Newsletter on Teaching, 11(1).

Additional Resource:
The Buck Institute for Education: Project-Based Learning.

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Reading & Writing in the Disciplines


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