ZOology and English: Not the most obvious combination of study programs, but according to new research published at the University of Pennsylvania, combining the two could boost literacy in the early years.
In 2016 and 2018, a team of researchers from the university tracked the progress of kindergarten (first grade) students in 71 classes, all of whom studied an integrated science and literacy curriculum called “Zoology One,” developed by the American Reading Company.
Here, two university scholars, Abigail Grey, senior researcher at the Education Policy Research Consortium, and Brookes Bowden, assistant professor in the Education Policy Division at the graduate school of education, discuss their research and what the results can tell us about the development of literacy skills in our youngest children.
Tes: The program you were testing combines science and literacy education. Why did this interest you?
Grey: I was a classroom teacher and in my experience the content was much richer and more interesting when integrated. When I started my research career, I wanted to look at the science behind it and explore this theory of change around integrating content areas to enhance learning.
Bowden: We were really interested in integrated curricula in general, but specifically in science, because there was huge potential for impact. There’s not a lot of science research, and in the United States there’s not enough science education in the schools. As a result, there isn’t a pipeline of students growing up with a love – and interest in – science.
More research on teaching and learning:
How did the program work?
Grey: Zoology One is a one-year program taught two hours a day. There are four nine-week units – the first is an introduction, but then it covers zoology, ecology and entomology.
Overall, the components are very typical of a traditional literacy program: teachers read aloud to their class and there is direct instruction on the area of literacy the teacher is focusing on that day -the.
However, there is a particular emphasis on independent reading, which is not so typical here in the United States, as well as an emphasis on integrating reading and writing into this program, which, again, we don’t always see. Very often, we will see very distinct “write times” or “read times”, whereas this program combines the two.
Particular emphasis was also placed on the involvement of parents: pupils received books to read at home and were encouraged to read at least 30 minutes a day.
So, the idea is that although the program aims to teach reading and writing, it does so by engaging with science subject content. Is it correct?
Grey: Yes. The program is not afraid of scientific language and exposes children to the language of science and the natural world. Children talk about hypotheses, habitats and entomology.
Our theory of change was that reading about animals and the natural world would increase motivation to keep reading. As students get excited about lions, for example, they can pick up basic vocabulary and knowledge. Then when the write prompts are introduced, they pull everything together.
And that’s what happened ? Have literacy skills improved?
Bowden: When we tested the control group against the group that received the integrated program, we found that the latter scored higher for motivation to read, comprehension of passages, and fluency in naming letters.
The impact around motivation to read was particularly observed in boys, which is interesting because young boys are generally less motivated to read in general. For us, this is the most exciting discovery. If you can use early exposure to literature to make a child a reader, you’ve changed their life, whether they do better on a test at the end of kindergarten or not, that motivator will increase. .
But comprehension was also a big gain, and we know that’s the keystone of reading. We want children to be able to read for meaning, to love and enjoy reading, and to develop a motivation to read – and understanding is key to all of this.
Letter-naming fluency, the speed at which children name and correct letters, is an important indicator that predicts literacy growth later in their school year, and we saw that there was a better growth in the treatment group than in the control group for this.
Were there areas in which the students in the treatment group did not outperform the others?
Grey: Yes: writing, decoding and word identification did not experience significant improvements. However, there was impact in all of these areas when we looked at teachers who had implemented the program accurately.
Essentially what this tells us is that even with a less than excellent implementation, we could expect to see impacts on letter naming fluency, comprehension, and motivation.
Where teachers were not specifically implementing the curriculum, what were they doing differently?
Bowden: It was mainly about reading at home: every day teachers should have sent students home with books to read, but some were reluctant to give students new books to take home, in case they wouldn’t get them back.
Overall, then, you have found that an integrated approach to literacy can have a significant impact on development. Why do you think it works particularly well for this age group?
Grey: Because it’s fun and kids want to do fun things. We forget this when we build our program.
Give them a book about bugs, that’s what they want to talk to you about, that’s how they develop their listening, speaking and writing skills. For me, it’s very simple, and it’s very intuitive.
I wish other educators would see our study and think, “Oh, I could try that,” because there are teachers in the study who have continued to offer it, even though it’s not really in the direction the school district has taken. And that’s because they’ve never enjoyed teaching so much and they’ve never seen students thrive like this.