Posts Tagged ‘reading comprehension’

Increasing Science Literacy through Weekly Article Abstracts

Monday, April 20th, 2015

Authors: Grant Kessler, Ph.D. Education Specialist: STEM, Transformation Central Texas STEM Center

Anna Wydeven, Science Specialist, Leander ISD

Stephen Marble, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Education, Southwestern University



Content area literacy is a hurdle to student attainment of science content knowledge and their ability to demonstrate learning. This article describes a pilot of a classroom-based intervention to help students overcome this obstacle. We call the approach “weekly article abstracts.” We describe the results of the pilot and share the approach, along with implementation tips, resources and references, for teachers who wish to implement weekly article abstracts in their science classrooms.



A colleague described her frustration to us: “No matter how much I do to make science content interesting and relevant, my students are failing accountability assessments!” With this concern as the catalyst for a discussion group, we heard a consistent theme from science teachers: “Students don’t seem to be ‘getting’ the literacy and expositive experiences that act as a speed bump to their science learning.” This anecdotal consensus resonates with our observations from classrooms across Texas. Analysis of assessment data frequently prescribes content-area literacy, not science content, as the most appropriate intervention for students to improve their science assessment outcomes. Students must be science literate–i.e., able to read and understand science writings and related diagrams, intelligently discuss complex contemporary issues, locate and synthesize valid information to inform decision-making, and utilize language to convey information—all of this as a foundation to build content-area knowledge and demonstrate learning (Texas Education Agency, 2009).

We probed science teachers about their experiences with literacy within the science class and found that the struggle can be attributed to the lack of adequate resources and training to help students tackle expository texts. For example, elementary language arts instruction is heavily grounded in fiction, which allows struggling readers to take advantage of plot direction as a guide. In contrast, these students often find themselves challenged to follow the expository nature of science texts.


Piloting an intervention

We wondered if there was a practical remedy to this situation. We imagined a high-impact, personalized, engaging process for teachers to use with students to develop science literacy. Consequently, we developed and implemented a strategy for 6th-8th grade students with the hypothesis that an increase in exposure to student-selected, science-related expository texts correlates with student growth in content-area literacy and science assessment outcomes (Martinez, 2008). We refer to this approach as “weekly article abstracts.”

Classrooms participating in the article abstract pilot were assigned to one of two conditions: weekly article abstracts or no article abstracts.  The backgrounds and performance levels of students within the conditions were comparable based on socio-economic status and prior benchmark performance.  At the conclusion of the pilot, the students from each condition were given a science reading passage and asked to take notes in the columns and answer assessment questions at the end of the reading. Student responses were coded to minimize bias, then assessed and analyzed by reading and science specialists.

The results of the pilot indicated that students exposed to the weekly article abstracts condition (N=138) showed statistically significant increases in content-area literacy and science assessment outcomes (p=0.001) as compared with students in the no abstracts condition (N=230).  Furthermore, teachers reported that the article abstracts provided a means for students to find relevant connections and engage with the science coursework.  Based on our positive experience with this process, we encourage its widespread adoption. The remainder of this article describes how to implement a weekly abstracts program in your classroom.


Science Abstracts 101


An article abstract is a weekly assignment that requires students to select, read and write a critique of a science-related article. Students bring their abstracts to class each Friday (or last day of instruction), where time is structured into the class period for students to dialogue about their learning and receive feedback about their work from peers. It is important to facilitate a learning-focused atmosphere for this weekly event and, as such, we highly recommend that abstracts be a required and ungraded learning opportunity. We have found it possible to structure these assignments so as to provide value without adding onerous incremental workload to the educator. It is useful to consider what science abstracts “are” and “are not” prior to adopting the process (Table 1).



Table 1. Abstracts “are” and “are not”


Implementing Science Abstracts

Introduce science abstracts by having students discuss the Dr. Suess quote, “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”  Facilitate the discussion to explore factors that drive academic success, including the quantity of personally selected free reading and levels of exposure to academic language through a variety of sources (Cullinan, 2000).

Next, in a manner that is consistent with Simon Sinek’s (2009) work on how great leaders inspire action, introduce article abstracts with students by sharing and developing “The Why” for science abstracts. We believe that weekly article abstracts provide a mechanism through which each student will grow in his or her ability to find relevance and ownership in classroom learning, critically consume information, intelligently discuss current events, utilize data to drive decision-making, and demonstrate learning on assessments.

Having set a purpose that article abstracts are a crucial opportunity for students, show students the InfoGraphic Poster (Figure 1) to help them understand how abstracts are implemented and what success looks like.


Infographic - Figure 1



Students select, cite and read a science-related article.

It is critical for students to search for and select their own articles because student choice is a key motivator to assignment completion and it drives ownership and engagement in the learning process (Thompson, 2009). Students, especially struggling readers, will need explicit instruction for how to locate and assess the quality of science sources. We successfully used the Planey & Hug (2012) “Source Quality Pyramid” activity with students, which is detailed in The Science Teacher, and can be accessed from:

We have found that some students–including those without consistent resources at home–will benefit from your support to schedule access to the library or use campus technology to access science sources.  Share the suggested source list (Figure 2) with students as a foundation for students to locate articles.


 SourceList - Figure 2


Also, while students choose their own articles, they may need periodic reminders to select articles from a variety of sources so that they can most efficiently increase their level of knowledge.  We quickly learned that students don’t already know how to cite sources, so it will be a good idea to explicitly teach students how to use tools such as “”


Article Summary

The next step in this procedure is to go over the abstract details from the InfoGraphic (Figure 1) and provide students with the “How to write an abstract” handout (Figure 3).


HowTo - Figure 3 


During the pilot, a number of students were initially apprehensive about reading and writing the abstracts summary because they didn’t have experience with academic science texts. To get over this initial hurdle, you might tell the students, “It is okay to pick a short article at first–just pick something that you understand.” Students were more comfortable reading and writing about articles they understood; their hesitance was really fear of not fully understanding the academic content. We found it particularly effective when students chose articles that mapped to their individual interests. For example, some students raise livestock, others were passionate about automobiles, quilting, and even dinosaurs. In each case, encouraging the student to select articles within their own interests helped to establish the relevance of science to their daily lives, and their enthusiasm soared. Work with the Language Arts department on your campus to align strategies and approaches to reading and writing reflectively.


Students may need coaching on how to write the summary. Frequently, students simply rearrange words to paraphrase the article directly rather than truly summarizing the article.  You can scaffold teaching this process based on student need, building from the following mini-lesson:

  1. Provide each student with a brief, low difficulty science article. Have students read the article, making notes in the margins. You might provide students with sample questions to support metacognition while reading, such as, “How does this compare with what I already know? How does this connect with me?” When students are finished reading, they put the articles away and take turns to explain what the article was about with a partner.
  2. Have students write a paragraph in summary of the article, based on the discussions.
  3. Explain to students that this learning experience represents the process for writing abstract summaries. Tell the students to “Read the article, put the article away, and then pretend you are talking to a friend as you write what it was about.”


Article Critique

The summary describes what the article is about; the critique is where students think critically about what they read and learned, reflecting on its impact to their lives. Here, we ask the students to consider the article’s strengths and weaknesses and to use evidence to support claims. The critique is an opportunity for students to develop and demonstrate their critical thinking skills.


While we have found that this portion of their product does not need much additional coaching, some students may need additional support. In order to differentiate for ability levels, you can provide students with an organizer as an accommodation for the process (Figure 4).


Accomodations - Figure 4 


Students share learning and receive peer feedback

An audience plays an important role in the abstract literacy process and gets students excited about sharing with (teaching) each other as experts each week. As you structure time into your class each week for students to share, remember to take a facilitator role. Assign students into groups of two and organize the time for each student to have time to assess the abstracts together with the InfoGraphic representation of the rubric (Figure 1).  Some teachers create a bulletin board to highlight the abstract of the week, with a QR code to the selected article.


Final Thoughts

Science content literacy has become an increasingly important part of how teachers support students to learn science. Weekly article abstracts are an unobtrusive and value-added way to integrate literacy into science classrooms. While students struggle with this process initially, they quickly improve with practice. In our article abstract pilot of 368 students, those who experienced weekly article abstracts showed significant gains in their abilities to read reflectively and apply metacognitive strategies, find relevance for science content, and intelligently discuss current events, demonstrating significant growth in content-area literacy overall.



Cullinan, B. (2000). Independent reading and school achievement. School Library

Media Research, vol. 3.

Kearton V & McGregor D. (2010) What do researchers say about scientific literacy in schools? Education in Science. 240 22-23

Martinez, P. (2008) Impact of an integrated science and reading intervention (INSCIREAD) on bilingual students’ misconceptions, reading comprehension and transferability of strategies. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, George Mason University.

Planey, J. & Hug, B. (January 2012). Climbing the pyramid: Helping students evaluate science news sources. The Science Teacher, 79(1): 37-40.

Sinek, S. (2009). Start with why: how great leaders inspire everyone to take action. New York: Portfolio.

Texas Education Agency (TEA) (2009). Texas college and career readiness standards (CCRS). Retrieved from:

Thomson, A. (2009). Reading: The Future – final report of the 2008 National Year of Reading. London, UK: The National Literacy Trust.