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ELA STEM Developing Literacy with Math and Science

As a former English teacher, the peculiarity of my position at a STEM-focused education organization isn’t lost on me. I’m much more at home with Shakespeare and Dickinson than with calculators and equations, and I’ve received much good-natured ribbing from colleagues and acquaintances about my lack of math prowess.

I may not be a math or science specialist; however, I appreciate the critical need for improving STEM education in our country. I also believe that our future mathematicians, computer programmers, engineers, and scientists must be strong readers and writers, effective communicators, and critical thinkers and innovators in order to be truly successful in their chosen fields. It is in this area of literacy and communications where my NMSI English colleagues and I have found our niche.
The fact NMSI has robust English AP and teacher training programs takes many people by surprise. For the past decade, we have served thousands of English teachers and their students, providing them with professional development opportunities, AP student prep sessions and mock exams, incentive programs, and lessons and resource materials. NMSI’s time, talent, and resources have been devoted to making sure the nation’s students are proficient readers, writers, and thinkers as well as strong math and science scholars.
Recently, commentators have debated whether the focus on STEM education is too narrow, and some are pushing for a renewed emphasis on the arts and humanities inour school curricula. While I am not going to rehash the arguments for or against the STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) movement in education, it bears repeating that our schools must produce literate students who can think critically and abstractly if we are to meet the needs of a 21st century workforce. According to the National Governors Association, only three out of every ten eighth graders are proficient readers, and struggling readers are more likely to drop out of high school, much less take advanced math and science classes. While we have sounded the alarm about our students’ lack of math and science knowledge, we need to be just as concerned about their weak reading skills. Supporting STEM education means, by necessity, we have to support literacy acquisition as well.
To this end, English teachers should work in partnership with our math and science colleagues to develop our students’ literacy skills. On one level, our students have to interpret and analyze math problems, read case studies and lab procedures, and write down their findings during experiments and projects—and helping students develop these reading and writing skills is the English teacher’s bread and butter. More importantly, though, is the fact our students also have to learn how to ask cogent questions, collaborate and debate with peers, solve problems, and synthesize ideas. The English classroom offers students a different kind of laboratory—one in which they can develop and hone these critical thinking and learning skills that eventually will be vital to their professional lives.
New college and career readiness standards stress the development of literacy skills across disciplines, so more science, social studies, and math teachers are partnering with their English colleagues to incorporate relevant reading and writing into their classroom activities. At NMSI, we are actively developing lessons and materials to help English and STEM teachers guide students through complex nonfiction and informational texts. One model lesson—“It All Started with Sputnik,” deals with the historical and cultural context of the U.S. Space Program and is available for download on the NMSI website. The lesson is a great example of the power of cross-curricular study and how English and science teachers can work together to improve students’ analytical thinking.
Asking teachers to embrace the new cross-discipline literacy standards isn’t an easy sell, especially for teachers who already must deal with the pressures of new college- and career- readiness standards, high-stakes testing, and students who are ill-prepared to meet these increased expectations. Science teachers, who may never have received training on teaching reading or writing, find the new literacy demands daunting and time-consuming, while English teachers are afraid that their beloved poetry, drama, and fiction will disappear in favor of informational texts. While any change brings with it some level of discomfort and anxiety, the new standards can serve as a catalyst for educators to bring exciting creativity and innovation to our lesson planning. Instead of working in isolation, we need to plan together, write lessons together, and teach together so that our students can see collaboration in action. We need to offer students opportunities for true inquiry—a process that demands the development of skills across our disciplines. We need to offer students opportunities in all classes to hone their reading and writing skills, and English teachers can and should take leadership roles on their campuses to promote literacy instruction across the curriculum.
David Gross, one of the 2004 Nobel Prize Winners in Physics, said “From the age of 13, I was attracted to physics and mathematics. My interest in these subjects derived mostly from popular science books that I read avidly . . . it seemed incredibly exciting to spend one’s life attempting to find the secrets of the universe by using one’s mind.” Helping students see the excitement in the life of the mind is a project all of us—English and STEM educators alike—can get behind.