Supporting English Language Arts Skills in Science

"Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope." - Kofi Annan
When I consider life skills most valuable to all students, but even more so for students with visual impairment, literacy is at the top of the list.  According to statistics, students with visual impairment who have high literacy levels have much higher levels of employment and greater income levels then those with low literacy levels.  This carries over into the sighted world as well.  I recently read a poster at the library which indicated  that individuals with low literacy levels on average earn only 35% of what those with high literacy levels earn.
So, WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH SCIENCE, you ask?  Given this data, it is well worth our time to support literacy in all content areas.
We are often forced to be so focused on the specific content that students must acquire for testing, that we don't think time will allow us to also support literacy skills.  I would argue that it is feasible to weave support of reading skills into science class (and other classes) without sacrificing science content. Literacy activities using science content also supports the learning of science and has potential to increase testing scores as well.
Students need guidance and support to learn how content textbooks are formatted and arranged.  This needs to be explicitly taught to students with visual impairment and significantly improves comprehension of texts.  Former print readers who are at the beginning stages of braille reading can be encouraged to practice tracking, noticing the layout of headings, the spaces between the words, and the indentations of the paragraphs. The oral readers can support this by saying such things as, "Centered heading, cell 5 (or 7) heading, blocked directions, or new paragraph," as they read.
The following suggestions are simple ways to incorporate literacy skills into your class.  Please note that for some students who are below grade level in reading, it will be necessary to complete some of the reading orally (especially true for non-readers). This provides excellent practice as well for the students.  Whenever possible in class, allow the student to have access to a print or braille book as text is read.      
  1. Select texts at an appropriate reading level for the student.  

I have found that sometimes students are placed in classes utilizing textbooks that are not at an appropriate comprehension level.  Note that when the reading problems are related to decoding and not to comprehension, the student will likely be successful with auditory books.  If the reading problems are due to comprehension, it will be valuable to acquire a text for him or her at a lower comprehension level to support the content that is being learned.  

  1. Have students complete reading as an out-of-class assignment regularly.  

I usually assess this either by having students write a paragraph about the content of the section or by answering several simple questions as they read.  

  1. Read short sections of the text as a class.    

Choose the text which highlights the most important concepts.  Choral reading with the instructor leading is recommended for a group of students who are budding readers.  Paired reading is also an option for classroom reading assignments (See 4 below for a description of paired reading.)

  1. Use paired reading. 

Prior to pairing students for reading, it is necessary to have information on reading levels.  Mentally (or on paper) group the class into a Top reader group and a Lower reader group.  The students will not know about this grouping as it is only for the purpose of choosing appropriate reading partners.  Place the top reader from the top group with the top reader from the lower group, the 2nd from the top group with the 2nd from the lower group and so on.   Choose a short important section of text (possible a summary or review of the section).  Have the top reader in each reading pair read for 2 minutes as you time.  Next, have the 2nd reader in each group also read for 2 minutes.  Continue until each group has read the entire reading section.  Pre-instruct on this point "when you finish the selection, go back to the beginning and reread it for more understanding, better remembering and to improve your reading fluency." That way the slower groups are not made aware that a group has finished. Finishing is not the point, review is. Repeated reading is a great way to increase comprehension if something is not well understood in the first place and the gold standard for increasing reading fluency.  If one group finishes early, instruct this pair to reread the passage as time allows until all groups have finished reading the passage. 

  1. Give students written warm-ups. 

I often have students write a sentence or two as a warm up.  The content is, of course, dependent on what is being covered in the course. 

  1. Provide written manipulatives.

Students match words and definitions as a review.  This takes some preparation to make braille and/or print cards of the words and definitions.  See Vocab Review Game activity.

  1. Offer sentence starters. 

These work well as a warm up or during instruction.  The entire class is orally given the beginning of a sentence to complete.  Students who can complete the sentence, raise their hands but DON'T answer aloud.  ​Students may also be asked to put hands on heads, ears, stand up, wiggle fingers or any number of things when they have prepared their answer. This technique can be used for any time you ask a question.  One student is called upon.  This student repeats the sentence starter and completes the sentence.  This allows all students to time think about the science content and to compose a full sentence (in their minds) prior to the chosen student answering.  It also allows all students to answer occasionally rather than the quickest student providing all the answers.  Sentence starters may also be provided to students in written form or students can be expected to answer in written form.  This technique is important because oral language development is one of the strongest predictors of reading development.   

In addition to these activities, please see the recent post on teaching students to use the Table of Contents.
These ideas are just the tip of the iceberg.  There are many other excellent ways in which literacy can be incorporated into your classroom.  Consider which ideas are most appropriate and realistic for your student or class and use those which work best.
Many thanks to Dr. Kay Pruett, reading and braille instructor at TSBVI, for her invaluable input. 
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