Incorporating Literacy in Your STEM Classroom

If STEM people can’t communicate, we don’t get to find out about their innovations

By Scott Sterling

This is something that not many people have paid attention to: do you know what the full name of the Common Core ELA standards document is? “Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects.” The new standards aren’t just about getting kids to read and write better; they’re about getting kids to read and write better in all disciplines.

The public perception is of the scientist slaving away alone in a dark lab until making a discovery. You know the truth—that the STEM fields are just as literate and collaborative as any other pursuit. Results need to be published. Presentations need to be given at conferences. Grants need to be written so that dark labs can stay open. Finally, peers need to review findings.

We’ll talk about how the ELA teachers can start doing STEM teachers favors in next week’s post, but this one is about how you can create scientists, engineers, and mathematicians who can actually communicate their ideas effectively—traditionally a difficult task for people working in the STEM fields.

They should read nearly as much in your class as in their ELA class

Common Core and other college and career readiness standards instruct ELA teachers that students should be reading more informational texts. Half of a fourth grader’s reading should be informational. In tenth grade, that number needs to be 70%. After all, very few adults have to read Shakespeare in the workplace, but almost everyone needs to read informational documents.

By most accounts, ELA curricula are heeding that call, and ELA teachers are more than capable of guiding students through such texts. But who can provide the deeper level of knowledge required for true understanding of that text? Who can fill the background knowledge gaps?

Even though you might be moving away from traditional textbooks (for the benefit of all), there still shouldn’t be many days in your class where your students haven’t read something. After they’re done reading, engage them in a higher-order-thinking lesson that brings context to what they’ve read.

They should write, but in your chosen form

If students should read more in class, they should certainly write more, as well. But here’s the difference: STEM teachers are afraid that they will have to assign huge research papers in MLA format, which they will then have to grade. That’s not the case.

Writing tasks should be authentic to your field and curriculum. Very few architects write long reports; don’t have engineering students write them just to meet a literacy goal. Figure out what the jobs in your field require in terms of writing skills and have students practice similar tasks.

In particular, have them practice short-form summarizing because everyone needs to be able to explain complicated concepts in an email. Let the ELA teachers grade big reports. They love it.

Team with ELA teachers on presentations

ELA teachers often struggle with public speaking and presentation topics. They end up assigning book reports and hobby presentations—things that no one in the real world ever has to do. Meanwhile, STEM teachers know that they should assign more speaking tasks, but many aren’t sure how to teach or assess those skills.

Practitioners in STEM fields are often just as likely to have to engage people through speaking as they are through writing.

This is the perfect interdisciplinary opportunity! Align a particularly good speaking topic with your ELA friend’s presentation unit. You cover the background information and investigation pieces during your classes while the ELA educator teaches the same students how to present their findings effectively. Then, get the class together for a symposium so everyone can be assessed at the same time based on your independent rubrics.

Do you have any great literacy-infused STEM lessons? Share your thoughts with your colleagues in the Comments section.

Want to go into depth with standards-based lesson planning and cognitively complex tasks? Check out the Learning Sciences International bookstore for resources that help educators make the critical instructional shift required by rigorous standards.