Fresno Shows Literacy Improvement through Science

Guest Contributors
March 01, 2000 | Literacy

If you're interested in finding a professional development model that has used FOSS to make changes in literacy performance, Fresno, CA is the place to go. The Fresno Unified School District has made giant strides toward using science to bring context to language arts. How did this happen? The right group of people was brought together—a supportive administration, a crew of dedicated (and downright inspired and stubborn) teachers-on-special-assignment, and a group of master teachers.

The program in Fresno was initiated due to the creativity and collaboration of two district administrators, Sandra Carsten (Assistant Superintendent) and Jerry Valadez (K–12 Science Coordinator). Sandra's goal was to improve students' language arts skills. Jerry's goal was to bring more science to classrooms. The product of this joint vision was a summer school program using science as a vehicle to improve language acquisition and help students learn how to access expository text. Virginia Kammer, Mike Lebda, and Elizabeth Andrade-Stiffler were the teachers-on-special-assignment who helped shape the program.

Five staff developers were involved in the project during the first year. (Note: They were all regular elementary teachers.) Each staff developer worked with two classroom teachers who taught in the summer school.

The summer school teachers were well versed in strategies for teaching language, but not as well versed in science instruction. The staff developers started by teaching the science to the students and modeling best practices for science. As the five-week period progressed, the classroom teachers took greater and greater responsibility for teaching science, while the staff developers continued to support and nurture them.

Another aspect of the program that provided teacher support was the development of a resource room with expository literature resources. FOSS modules were analyzed and books were purchased to support each of the modules. The books could be checked out and used with the FOSS materials. Teachers and staff developers looked carefully at how to reinforce language-arts skills in the context of science. They embedded shared reading, guided reading, and spelling as part of language-arts development. They used the adopted narrative textbook during language periods and expository text during science periods. It is important to note that the expository reading was usually introduced after students had completed the related FOSS activities.

At the end of summer school, a comparison was made between three sites that were focusing on language arts skills. Two very interesting results emerged. Attendance at the science summer school was significantly higher than at the other two schools. There was a significant growth shown from the pre- to the post-language arts assessment for the students in the science-focused summer school. There was minimal or no growth at the two schools where only language arts were emphasized. After reviewing these data the district superintendent found these results so striking that the language arts and science summer-school program was expanded the following year. The program became a demonstration summer school for both administrators and teachers.

Based on what happened in year 1, the program was modified somewhat for year 2. A master teacher in language arts and a master science teacher (an elementary teacher) were teamed in the same class. These teams worked with at-risk students as designated by the district. Science lead teachers and their administrators from all elementary sites came on a voluntary basis to the demonstration summer school for two weeks of intensive training in science instruction that supports literacy development. They also worked on leadership skills. The expectation was that they would develop their own classrooms as model sites in the fall. They would then work with other members of their site staffs interested in modifying their own teaching.


Because there was evidence that the demonstration summer school was a positive experience for both students and teachers, the project continued to be supported by the district administration. In year 3, all elementary administrators were required to receive training in either science or math best practices in addition to language-arts strategies. They were also updated regarding state mandates they needed to be aware of for the next year. Both administrators and lead teachers attended the summer-school program for a week. Each group attended separate institutes. Lead teachers continued to work with the master teachers in the summer-school classrooms. Administrators were guided in observation techniques to help them look for the components and outcomes that indicated success in both science and language arts.

The rest is history. Fresno continues to show gains in language-arts scores from children who experience language arts in the context of science. If you would like more information about the program and how it has evolved, contact Jerry Valadez (, Virginia Kammer, or Mike Lebda at Fresno Unified School District for more information. Their address is Fresno Unified School District, 3132 East Fairmont, Fresno, CA 93726. Phone: 559.248.7167.