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by Tiffany L. Gallagher, Ph.D. and Xavier Fazio, Ed.D., Brock University

What is ‘Reading to Learn’ in Science?

For elementary students, the value of communicating orally, reading, and writing in disciplinary areas such as science is well established (Fazio & Gallagher, 2015; National Research Council, 2014; Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008). Accordingly, the acquisition of language skills is essential to support ‘reading to learn’ about information in subjects such as science (Fang et al., 2008; Moje, 2008). In particular, effective integration of science and literacy practices encourages students to both explore scientific phenomena and build fundamental literacy skills (Bradbury, 2014). For today’s students to participate in tomorrow’s decision-making, it is imperative that they possess the skills to be mobile and adept at reading, writing, and oral communication in science (Krajick & Sutherland, 2010; Pearson et al., 2010). Even though only some students will pursue careers in science, all will engage in reading about science during their lifetime. So, all students need to ‘read to learn’ in science!

Yet, science and literacy instructional integration is often misunderstood by practicing teachers and may be even avoided by teachers who are challenged to consider ways to integrate for students with learning disabilities(LDs) (Mason & Hedin, 2011). It is imperative that educators support all students in reading science. Why? Students will use ‘reading to learn’ in science more than any other modality in school. When integrating science and English language arts in elementary contexts, students benefit from support for:

  • the cognitive processes shared between two disciplines (Vitale & Romance, 2012), and
  • the awareness of how important literacy skills are in ‘doing’ science (Pearson et al., 2010).

So, what are the necessary considerations for teachers to build a synergistic relationship between science and literacy for all students? There are discipline-specific strategies available that improve learning outcomes in science, while embedding language experiences (Cervetti & Pearson, 2012). Specifically, when literacy activities are driven by hands-on scientific inquiry, students can simultaneously learn how to read and write about science, and talk and do science (Cervetti et al., 2012; Yore et al., 2003). There is evidence that such literacy and science curriculum interventions are effective (Fazio & Gallagher, 2016; Fang et al., 2008; Goldschmidt, 2010; Patrick et al., 2009) and that these interventions can be applied to support all students to ‘read to learn’ in science – including students with LDs.Two students doing science homework

Challenges Students with LDs Face when ‘Reading to Learn’ in Science

As many students progress through the elementary grades, the process of learning to read is acquired and consequently, reading for enjoyment or to learn about the natural world is a normal extension. For many students with LDs, however, reading is a challenge that may impact ‘reading to learn’. Teachers of students with LDs should consider offering differentiated opportunities for ‘reading to learn’ in science. Students with LDs may present with some of the following challenges as they engage with science-based texts:

Prior Knowledge – Students with LDs may experience challenges comprehending science texts if they lack prior or background knowledge of the concepts that are presented in the text (Mason & Hedin, 2011). For them, relating new content to prior knowledge is not always a fluid process. It is critical for students to make connections from their existing knowledge of science to ‘new’ and essential concepts in science that contribute to the expansion of their understanding of scientific concepts (Villanueva et al., 2012).

Transfer – Remedial instruction or an intervention program can be provided for students with LDs and this might offer general strategies for reading texts. However, many students with LDs are unlikely to independently transfer these general strategies to other contexts (Biancarosa & Snow, 2006), especially when the text relates specifically to science. Students with LDs require explicit instruction to understand how to use and apply reading strategies in all instances that demand reading.    

Working Memory – Students with LDs may have challenges remembering information while also performing other cognitive operations (Hallahan et al., 2010). Science texts are dense with facts, concepts, and data to be remembered. When ‘reading to learn’ a science concept, the text might also present the reader with visuals such as a graph or an image to complement what the student has read. Coordinating these operations in working memory may be difficult for students with LDs (Dexter & Hughes, 2011).

Vocabulary – Content-based text in science is rich in description but dense in vocabulary, due, in part, to the Latin and Greek roots (e.g., thermometer: Greek roots "therm" [heat] and "meter" [measure]) found in science vocabulary (Rasinski et al., 2008). Such vocabulary is often not phonetically regular, making the task of decoding challenging for students with LDs. As well, the technical use of science-specific vocabulary might be unfamiliar to  students with LDs (Weiser, 2013).

Text Complexity – Readability of informational science texts varies depending on the format and text structures (Liang et al., 2013). This makes it difficult to determine text gradients (Pitcher & Fang, 2007). Furthermore, science texts are considered conceptually dense. This refers to the rate in which science concepts are introduced, along with the logical relationships inferred throughout informational text (Mason & Hedin, 2011).  For students with LDs, science texts are complex both in their linguistic and cognitive features, and this can intensify comprehension demands (Kosanovich, 2013).

Given the aforementioned challenges, comprehending science text is often onerous for students with LDs. Comprehension of science-based texts can be challenging as they include precise vocabulary, compressed factual information, and multifaceted concepts that demand access and connections to background knowledge (Johnson & Zabrucky, 2011).

Strategies to Support Students with LDs ‘Reading to Learn’ in Science

Teachers of students with LDs should consider offering differentiated opportunities for ‘reading to learn’ in science.

Following are some instructional strategies and examples of activities that address the challenges in reading to learn science for students with LDs. In terms of pedagogy, teachers should consider the established efficacy of explicit strategy instruction (Almasi, 2003) and the gradual release of responsibility model (Ministry of Education, 2013) as methods of delivery. As well, teachers should view instructional strategies as embedded within a combined intervention approach and not to be taught in isolation.

Image of the Chart

Click here to access the chart Strategies to Support Students with LDs ‘Reading to Learn’ in Science.

Conclusion and Additional Readings

There is great potential to support the learning of science through effective reading instructional supports for students with LDs (Brigham, Scruggs, & Mastropieri, 2011). Current research indicates that students with LDs can be successful readers with strategies that work in synergy with structured hands-on, inquiry-based science approaches (Villanueva et al., 2012). Furthermore, it appears that students with LDs likely benefit from ‘reading to learn’ in science when there is:

  • focus on overall science concepts and big ideas,
  • additional practice and review of core concepts and vocabulary, and
  • science text enhancements.

In particular, mnemonics, graphic organizer creation, repeated readings, and peer-assisted learning strategies (see Mason & Hedin, 2011; Therrien et al., 2011) provided in conjunction with typical science education instruction can significantly improve students with LDs that affect their ‘reading to learn’ in science. Indeed, all students can ‘read to learn’ in science!

To learn more about combining literacy and science instruction:

Click here to access the practice-informed summary, "Teaching Science to High School Students with Learning Disabilities: Rising to the Challenge".

Click here to access an article from the website Relating Research to Practice, titled “Combining literacy lessons and science inquiry: An ISE research brief discussing”, written by Suzanne Perin.


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Brigham, F., Scruggs, T., & Mastropieri, M. (2011). Science education and students with learning disabilities. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 26(4), 223-232.

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Fazio, X. & Gallagher, T. L. (2016). Science and literacy integration in elementary classrooms: instructional enactments and student learning outcomes. Presented at the Annual Convention of the American Educational Research Association (AERA). Washington, DC

Fazio, X. & Gallagher, T.L. (2015). Are We Missing the Mark when Encouraging the Integration of Science and Literacy?  Presented at the Ministry of Education/Faculties of Education Forum. Toronto, ON.

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Gallagher, T. L., Fazio, X. & Ciampa, K. (2017). A comparison of readability in science-based texts: Implications for elementary teachers.  Canadian Journal of Education, 40(1), 2-29.

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Related Resources on the LD@school Website

Click here to access the evidence-based summary, "Tiered Approaches to the Education of Students with Learning Disabilities".

Click here to access the evidence-based summary, "Peer-Mediated Learning Approaches".

Click here to access the practice-informed summary, "Graphic Organizers".

Click here to access an article on mnemonics.

Click here to access the evidence-based summary, "Teaching the Brain to Read: Strategies for Improved Decoding, Fluency, and Comprehension".

Click here to access the resource guide, "Teaching Secondary Students to Write Effectively: An Educator’s Practice Guide".

About the Authors:

Dr. Tiffany Gallagher has a Ph.D. in Educational Studies (Cognition and Learning), a Master of Education (Teaching and Learning), and a Concurrent Bachelor of Arts in Child and Youth Studies and Bachelor of Education degrees, from Brock University. Dr. Gallagher is currently an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at Brock University and Director of the Brock Learning Lab. Her research interests and expertise are in literacy assessment and instruction, supporting teachers and professional learning facilitators and disciplinary literacy. 

Dr. Xavier Fazio has an Ed.D. in Curriculum Studies (Science Education), a Master of Education (Curriculum and Instruction), and Bachelor of Education with a specialty in middle and secondary science teaching from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, along with an Honours Degree in Biology from the University of Toronto. Dr. Fazio is currently an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at Brock University with the following teaching and research foci: science and environmental education, disciplinary literacy, and assessment.