FOSS Science Stories: Building Literacy Through Science

Kari Rees, Reading and Language Arts Specialist, Contra Costa County, California
March 05, 2001 | Literacy

Early literacy development focuses on "cracking the code" of written language. Students learn how to decode words, automatically recognize "sight words," use a variety of strategies for comprehension, and practice reading aloud to develop fluency. Students also learn the written conventions of language, coordinate visual motor skills, and organize thoughts into meaningful sentences. Learning to read and write is a daunting task indeed!

This monumental effort, however, serves an even greater purpose. As students develop their literacy skills, the objective of literacy development transfers from learning to read and write to reading and writing to learn. People use oral and written language to articulate thought, solve problems, and gather information. Literacy development is an essential component of cognitive development.

New Plants - cover

Typically, students are exposed to a variety of stories in the quest for literacy. Picture books, basal readers or anthologies, and controlled vocabulary stories are often included in a teacher's literacy program. While reading instruction begins with narrative texts, it does not end there. From the third or fourth grade, the bulk of reading practice that students get occurs with "content-area" reading materials. From third grade through twelfth, a student is expected to read at least 30,000 pages from science, math, and social studies textbooks. (May, 1986, p. 375)

Often, both teachers and parents assume that, once children master the basic skills of reading, they should be able to read anything, including content-area textbooks. However, each type of reading material, including every content area, has its own characteristics that must be learned. Each content area has its own vocabulary, sentence structure, required reading speed, and assumptions about what experience the reader has already had. Students must develop literacy skills for each content area to meet the different challenges presented by content-area literature.

Preparing students to tackle content-area materials needs to begin in the primary grades. Students can learn to crack the written code of a variety of genres, including both narrative and expository texts, while also learning content. It is important to remember that students who are studying a subject area such as science are also studying language. "Biology is not plants and animals. It is language about plants and animals. History is not events. It is language describing and interpreting events. Astronomy is not planets and stars. It is a way of talking about planets and stars." (Postman, 1979, p. 165)

FOSS Science Stories for grades 1-2 offer teachers a tool for developing content-area literacy in science. Each set of stories is meaningfully linked to the content students are exploring in each FOSS module. Because the stories are read after students have had some hands-on experience with the concepts presented in the module, students obtain background knowledge regarding the topic discussed in the article. The content is familiar and part of their experience. Students are able to practice their newly acquired reading skills with expository text.

New Plants - Table of Contents

Each story in the book contains colorful photos that illustrate scientific concepts in a context that is different from the experience students have had in class. These photos ask students to apply their knowledge to different situations and invite discussion of the scientific ideas being explored. The text itself invites students to participate by posing open-ended questions at meaningful junctures in the articles. These questions model valuable strategies fundamental to both science and reading and ask students to actively think about what they have read.

Questioning strategies are further modeled by the open-ended discussion questions suggested in the teacher's folio. These questions are used to deepen students' understanding of the scientific ideas and also to encourage students to actively process the information presented in the text. Often these questions ask students to refer back to the text to support an answer, to explain one of the photos, or to clarify a statement made by the author.

Extension activities are suggested after students have read and discussed the article. The extension activities ask students to further develop their ideas by synthesizing, analyzing, or evaluating information presented in the article and provide another opportunity forstudents to process content information while working with the structure of expository text.

For example, in the FOSS New Plants Module for grades 1-2, students begin their investigation of plants by growing brassica plants. Brassica grow quickly and allow students to observe the entire growth and reproduction cycle of a plant within a relatively short time. Students learn what plants need to survive and how the plants' structures accommodate those needs.

The accompanying article in FOSS Science Stories New Plants, "What Do Plants Need?" expands on students' knowledge and asks students to apply their understanding of plants' needs to the plants described in the article. Before reading the article, the table of contents is introduced and discussed with the class. Because a table of contents is a tool often found in content-area texts, a quick discussion of how to use a table of contents is vital to students' content-area literacy.

Next, an introductory activity is suggested to set a purpose for reading and to activate or introduce content vocabulary. Students are asked to brainstorm ideas that might answer the question, "What do plants need?" and then read the story to find out. After reading the story, students are asked why do plants need water, nutrients, sunlight, and space? What information from the text tells you why? They learn to scan the article to find the needed information.

As an extension, students are asked to compare and contrast plants' needs with humans' needs. Students learn to use a graphic organizer, a Venn diagram, applying what they have learned about plants in a new context and using the article as a resource for their assignment. Another activity introduces, encourages discussion about, and models how to use the glossary—another tool often found in content-area texts. Content vocabulary introduced in the FOSS module continues to be used throughout each story and in the extension activities provided in the teacher's folio.

Schools are expected to impart a common body of information and also to teach students how to acquire information on their own. Content-area literacy has two aims—to teach students about the world and to teach students how to learn about the world on their own. FOSS Science Stories provide primary teachers with a tool for developing content-area literacy in science. The articles are written in an engaging, expository format utilizing content vocabulary already familiar to students through their work in the FOSS module. The text and photos encourage students to actively interact with the story and develop questioning strategies fundamental to both literature and science. Finally, FOSS Science Stories ask students to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information presented in the text and to further develop their scientific knowledge by applying their understanding to different settings.


  • May, Frank B. (1986). Reading as communication: An interactive approach. Columbus, Ohio: Merrill Publishing Company
  • Postman, N. (1979). Teaching as a conserving activity. New York: Delacorte Press.