Integrating Science & ELA: Discoveries from the Early Implementer Evaluators
By Ashley Iveland and Tyler Burr
Student writing in Science Notebook on results from testing their design next to the finished design of their pollinator.[/caption]
A second-grade classroom is “a-buzz” with students drawing designs and researching pollinators. They are learning about animals that pollinate plants by watching videos and reading a variety of print and online sources. Their research reinforces the observations they made while in the school garden and will help them as they engineer their own pollinators. In their notebooks, students continually revise their drawings as they get ideas from their research and feedback from their peers. The excitement grows as they finalize plans for the pollinators that they will build and test the next day.
Benefits of Integrating Science and ELA
These second-grade students are working through the engineering design process, applying science concepts and practices as well as a range of English Language Arts (ELA) skills: reading, writing, speaking and listening. Their teacher, a 20-year veteran and a participant in the CA K-8 NGSS Early Implementer Initiative, finds it “critically important to integrate throughout the different subjects.” She knows that there are many benefits to integrating science with other subjects, especially ELA.
NGSS science taps into the natural curiosity and energy of young people and provides content for meaningful application of ELA skills. Challenging tasks—such as reading complex texts, formulating arguments, constructing explanations, and defending claims—come more easily when students are in pursuit of their own wonderings.
As evaluators of the Early Implementers Initiative, we have observed many NGSS lessons and talked to teachers and administrators about the impact of NGSS instruction. This article is based on a recently released report from the evaluation team. The full report, “The Synergy of Science and English Language Arts,” contains eight examples of K-8 classroom instruction integrating science and ELA. (Find these and other resources here: http://k12alliance.org/ca-ngss.php )
We chose to focus on the integration of science and ELA to highlight the important potential benefits of such instruction. They include:
• Reinforcing skills and content in both subjects
• Supporting English Language Learners and ensuring all students are engaged
• Making more time for science in the classroom (particularly in elementary school) without taking time away from other subjects
Surveyed Early Implementer teachers reported that integrating ELA and science instruction allowed them to address a wide range of Common Core State Standards for ELA (CCSS-ELA). Five standards, in particular, emerged as especially conducive to integration (see Table 1). Our findings indicate that most, if not all, of the CCSS-ELA standards can be addressed using science as content.
Standards for ELA that teachers addressed while integrating science with ELA during the 2016-17 school year.[/caption]
A majority of teachers indicated teaching more science overall in 2016-17 compared to the previous year, and 35% of K-8 teachers chose “understanding how to integrate science with… CCSS-ELA standards” or “ELD standards” as the strongest influences for that increase. Each year, Early Implementer teachers report spending more time teaching science integrated with ELA (see Figure 1). During the 2016-17 school year, K-5 teachers reported that 31% of their time spent on science was integrated with ELA.
Figure 1: Percentage of teachers teaching over 60 minutes of science integrated with ELA per week, 2014-15 to 2016-17[/caption]
While these benefits are most evident in elementary school, middle school science and ELA teachers should also consider the importance of integrated instruction. CCSS-ELA includes reading and writing standards for literacy in other subject areas (including science) in grades 6-12, which are reinforced in the NGSS practices. These standards help to make science accessible to all students, especially ELLs, by developing their reading, writing, and language skills. Teachers also benefit, because the practices help to make students’ thinking apparent for formative and summative assessments of scientific understanding. One 8th grade teacher noted that when he provided his students with structures for academic language (such as sentence stems), they were better able to express their thinking and understanding:
They have thoughts in their head but have a hard time expressing them because they have low Lexile scores or they are ELLs. Many times students like these don’t have the resources to be able to share, but they need to be able to share all those wonderful things in their head. (8th-grade teacher, San Diego)
He emphasized that having ELA “reinforced in science is going to help students get more exposure with language, literacy, and writing,” in addition to engaging them in science practices (like engaging in argument from evidence). One of his—and many teachers’—favorite strategy to integrate ELA with science is “Claims, Evidence, and Reasoning” (CER). With CER, a student evaluates the relevance and reliability of evidence and then uses scientific reasoning to explain how that evidence logically supports a claim. Arguing from the evidence is a practice explicitly called for in the NGSS and the CCSS (see Figure 2). Evaluators for the Early Implementers Initiative found that over two-thirds of teachers (67%) reported using CER at least twice per month, and 18% used it two to five times each week.
Figure 2. Commonalities Among the Practices in Science, Mathematics, and ELA[/caption]
Additional information on CER can be found in “The Synergy of Science and English Language Arts” and in an upcoming evaluation report, “Guide to Tools and Strategies for NGSS Implementation” (to be released in February 2018).
Getting Administrators on Board
There are many reasons to integrate science and ELA, and the Early Implementers work has made it clear that administrators at both the school and district level play a critical role. In elementary school especially, teachers who were told by their administrators that math and ELA were priorities were reluctant to significantly address science. However, if administrators allow them to integrate, teachers can address both subjects more meaningfully. In year 3 of the Initiative, almost two-thirds of teachers (65%) reported that their school principals were “very” or “somewhat” supportive of them teaching science integrated with ELA, even during the time allotted specifically for ELA (for elementary teachers). Administrators should keep in mind the positive effects this kind of instruction can have on students: improvement for all students not just in science, but in ELA as well.
More information on what administrators can do to support NGSS science and integrated instruction can be found in the report, “Administrators Matter in NGSS Implementation.”
Ashley Iveland, Research Associate: Early Implementer’s Initiative Evaluation, WestEd. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Tyler Burr, Project Director, Early Implementer’s Initiative Evaluation, WestEd. Email: email@example.com