Developing Science Reading Skills

Instructor: Lisa Roundy

Lisa has taught at all levels from kindergarten to college and has a master's degree in human relations.

Strategies to improve reading skills must be incorporated into the science classroom. This lesson will examine the role of student ability, vocabulary comprehension, and the presentation of material.

Challenging Material for Students

You are looking for something to read, so you open a technical manual with the schematics for a spaceship that will be used for a manned mission to Mars. Chances are that the diagrams and weird looking symbols will make little sense to you unless you are a rocket scientist. Since you don't understand what you are looking at, you toss the technical manual aside in frustration, even though the thought of learning more about space travel is appealing. Suddenly, you realize this may be one of the reasons some of your students are struggling with their assigned science reading!

Reading skills are essential to understanding many scientific concepts, but the material can be challenging when it is first presented. What can you do to alleviate this problem in your classroom? You don't teach reading... you teach science! Fortunately, you can integrate many strategies into your classroom that can help develop science reading skills. Three key areas to consider are your students' abilities, their vocabularies, and helping them understand material presentation by examining how reading a science text differs from reading their favorite novel.

Students' Abilities

Consider the students that make up your classroom. What are their reading skills? One of the first things you need to know are your student's print processing abilities, or how quickly and efficiently they can read the assigned material. You don't want to assign more work than your students are capable of completing in the required time. They may become frustrated with the workload or fall behind quickly.

You will also need to have a good grasp of your students' decoding abilities. This refers to how well they have mastered the ability to sound out words and pronounce them correctly. Can they figure out how to pronounce words they haven't seen before? If not, you will need to spend some extra time making sure they understand how to pronounce key words. A student may not make the connection between the reading material and verbal instruction if they are reading the pronunciation of a word differently than what they are hearing in class. They may even think they are learning two different concepts!


We just mentioned the importance of pronouncing key words correctly as they are read, but it is essential that students also understand the meaning of key vocabulary words. If a student comes across an unknown word and the student has no idea what the meaning is, that student is likely to skip over the word, continue reading, and hope to figure it out along the way. Unfortunately, if the student is not successful at figuring it out (or he or she makes a mistaken assumption about the meaning of the word) it will result in confusion. What can you do to help prevent this?

One of the most important things you can do is focus on key terms prior to reading. You could have your students create flash cards for new vocabulary or play a matching game with the terms. This will increase their orthographic processing, or their visual memory and ability to store and access the word. Memorizing helps a student recognize the term more easily the next time they see it and attach meaning to the word. Exposing the students to how the word looks and sounds ahead of time will also increase their fluency and reading speed.

It is also beneficial to spend some time understanding the use of word parts. This is called morphological awareness. Understanding the significance of certain root words, prefixes, or suffixes is essential to some material and can be especially beneficial in science. For example, if you are teaching a unit on scientific measurement making sure all of your students are aware of the meanings of the prefixes milli-, centi-, and kilo- will increase their understanding of millimeters, centimeters, and kilometers or milligrams, centigrams, and kilograms.

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