Every time I see the letters S-T-E-M, I instantly see neon lights flashing, “Hot Topic!” Everyone is talking about it—even the President of the United States! As we all know, very few of our high school graduates are pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, and math, though many believe careers in STEM are the future of our country.
Science, technology, engineering, and math are important, but literacy skills are the foundation or glue that holds it all together. So when I look at the STEM acronym, I always wonder if there’s a letter missing: the letter L.
In order for our students to be prepared for STEM careers, they must be able to navigate informational text. This involves understanding text features they rarely encounter in fictional stories. Also, our students must build their vocabulary and strengthen their writing skills. “STEML” may not flow off the tongue as easily as STEM, but I believe without the L for literacy skills, there is no STEM. Making the Most of Text Features
Comprehending informational texts includes understanding unique text features. Diagrams, captions for photos, bold print, and headings are just some of the features children might encounter in such text.
By including quality printed and digital informational texts in the classroom, we are laying the foundation. However, it isn’t enough to just have the materials available. We can’t assume that children will notice or understand the features that make informational text unique. When I was a student, I looked at a graph in a content area text as one less page to read. Well, I doubt I was the exception, and many of our students feel the same way. We have to draw their attention to the unique linguistic features of text in order for them to realize the important role graphs, charts, and other visuals play in conveying and extending information found in texts.
We can show our students how differently information is presented in a timeline of the transportation revolution versus an article on the same topic. Also, children can compare the writing used in an article on plants and the sequential steps in a science experiment explaining how to grow a plant. Student-created texts that contain text features can also be used to reinforce linguistic features. By displaying the text in the classroom, we are not only ensuring a print rich environment, but we are building our students’ confidence as literacy learners and reinforcing their content knowledge. Strengthening Word Knowledge
Vocabulary is another area which can cause issues for our students. Everyone knows that vocabulary in the content areas is much more technical than that found in fictional stories. Therefore, we have to spend extra time focusing on the vocabulary demands of STEM texts.
There are so many engaging ways to develop vocabulary skills. Do a strategy search with other teachers and try some of the research based vocabulary strategies found. One of my favorite strategies is “Ten Important Words Plus” (Yopp and Yopp, 2007). For this strategy, children work in small groups to find ten words they think are important within a chunk of text. A class graph is then created, showing how often specific words were selected by student groups.
After discussing the graph and the words on it, the class is divided into new groups. The teacher selects one word off the graph and lets each group complete an activity with the word. Group tasks may include acting out a word, drawing a picture to depict the word’s meaning, finding other sources which contain the word, or creating a graphic aid containing synonyms and antonyms for the word. (Be creative and brainstorm some other tasks students might enjoy!)
After groups finish their assigned task and share the results, the teacher selects another word off the chart on which to focus. Group tasks should change after every few words in order to keep the students engaged.
This activity is a win-win in my eyes. Students are motivated because they get to select important words and work in groups, yet the teacher gets to choose the words which are focused on in class. Plus, chances are students will learn a lot more than the ten words they initially selected. Writing with a Purpose
While dialogue journals have been popular for many years, their popularity may diminish as teachers look for ways to reinforce writing for various audiences and purposes. Writing to learn is a great time to draw students’ attention back to the linguistic features discussed earlier. Students need to consider the audience, purpose, and information conveyed as they develop visuals such as charts, timelines, headings, and other features in their own student-created texts.
We might have our students create an informational text for younger children in the school. Students can talk to the children, find out their areas of interest or a topic currently studied and create a text on the topic which includes graphs, timelines, or other features. Another idea is for students to interview adults who use math or science in their career. There are many ways to conduct the interviews. Adults might come to the classroom for the interviews, students might conduct the interviews outside of school, or perhaps the interviews can be done via Skype.
Students will not only learn about science, engineering, and math and the importance of those areas to the world around them, but they will also improve their oral communication skills as they ask questions and their written skills as they convey the information gathered to a wider audience.
Yes, I agree that STEM is important. However, I still wonder at times if we shouldn’t call it STEML… Reference
Yopp, H.K., & Yopp, R.H. (2007). Ten important words: A strategy for building word knowledge. The Reading Teacher
, 61(2), 157-160. Jennifer L. Altieri, Ph.D. is the Literacy Division Coordinator in the School of Education at The Citadel in Charleston, SC, and the author of CONTENT COUNTS! DEVELOPING DISCIPLINARY LITERACY SKILLS, K-6. Jennifer will be speaking more about putting the L in stem as part of the Carolina curriculum leadership series at the National Science Teachers Association Conference in April. Her presentations will focus on helping teachers link literacy with science and math. Contact Jennifer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2013 Jennifer Altieri. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise. Building Content Literacy with Math Word Problems