Reading for meaning in science

Don’t be fooled… your students are reading text that they probably only partially understand. Below are some simple strategies I find useful to support students to read for meaning in science lessons. The key is to first start with the sounding of words and then move on to getting students to understand meaning. Thanks to Amy McJennett for advice with this page.

Tier 1,2 and 3 words

There are three different types of words students come across when reading.

  • Tier 1 words found in everyday speech e.g. walk
  • Tier 2 words found in an academic book or exam paper e.g. amble, alternating, structure, function, evaluate
  • Tier 3, subject-specific words e.g. photosynthesis, osmosis

As science teachers we should commit to teaching both tier 2 and tier 3 words.

Reading with students in science – start with sounding out words then go for meaning

  1. Start with a small piece of text e.g. a paragraph and make sure students are clear on why they are reading it before they start. For example: ‘We are reading this text to find out why diamond has a high melting point’.
  2. Use this fantastic tool to find out the reading age of your science text and ensure the text is age-appropriate for your students.
  3. The teacher should read the text aloud, slowly and with expression – sound out any difficult words and get students to repeat them after you e.g. pho – to – syn – thes – is
  4. Students then read the same text in pairs. They can correct each other.
  5. Students answer four simple comprehension questions e.g who, what, where, when and why?
  6. Assess understanding gained from the comprehension task and intervene where necessary
  7. Move onto more complex reading for meaning activities  – see below

Directed activities related to texts

Directed activities related to texts (DARTs) encourages students to interact with a text. Good DARTs ask pupils to use and understand information as opposed to simply moving it from one place to another. This DART gets students to use a labelled diagram of a lung to complete some text. Students then use the text to annotate the lung diagram. Students demonstrate understanding through use and modification of the text.

Understanding complex scientific vocabulary

Reading in science for meaningReading science text for meaning. We often give students quite complex text to read in science lessons that contains a variety of words, both scientific and non-scientific. Science teachers tend to spend time supporting students to understand key scientific terms (tier 3 words), but skirt around the more general language (tier 2 words). This task supports students to read for meaning. Students read the passage and discuss the meaning of a number of words underlined in the text, both scientific and non-scientific. Students select other words that have similar meanings to those underlined in the passage. This simple activity can be adapted for a variety of topics, age-groups and texts. (PDF)

Further reading
  1. Dangers of starting with definitions 
  2. Developing oracy for science 
  3. Reading for meaning in science