Teaching Hands-On/Minds-On Science Improves Student Achievement in Reading: A Fresno Study

Jerry D. Valadez, Science Coordinator, and Yvonne Freve, Analyst, Fresno Unified School District—Urban Systemic Program, Fresno, California
September 24, 2002 | Literacy

Responding to the urgency of raising language arts test scores and meeting California API goals (Accountability Performance Index), most California elementary schools have stated as a primary instructional goal the integration of language arts and reading with other content areas. In actuality, schools are looking for innovations packaged as reading or literacy programs. Most vendors and many educational consultants recommend increasing the instructional minutes exclusively for language arts and reading, marginalizing other content areas like science and social science. These strategies have been implemented, even though research on effective reading instruction encourages reading in content areas, especially science. In addition, several studies indicate that inquiry-based science materials and instruction have a positive effect on the development of reading comprehension skills.

In Fresno Unified, the fourth-largest school district in California, efforts began to focus on research and validation of effective strategies for integrating language arts and reading through content instruction. Teachers using the hands-on, inquiry-based FOSS units submitted one embedded assessment per year for each student. A scoring institute was conducted during the summer months, giving teachers an opportunity to study student work and understand more fully what children were experiencing in the classroom.

Graph: SAT9 Reading Score Gains by Ethnicity and Years of FOSS Instruction

The program was supported for four years (1998–2001). The study of the embedded assessments project included matching students participating in embedded assessments to SAT-9 Reading scores. Analysis shows that the students who received four years of inquiry-based science instruction (as shown by participating in the FOSS embedded assessment project) scored better on SAT-9 reading when compared to those students who did not receive inquiry-based science instruction. Students receiving the benefit of the full four years scored better than those who participated fewer years. Additionally, it was found that minority ethnic groups' reading scores increased at higher rates than their non-minority counterparts, suggesting that hands-on, inquiry-based science content may provide an effective means of reducing the tenacious achievement gap that has existed between ethnic groups. In all cases, a positive relationship was found between the number of years of FOSS instruction and SAT-9 Reading score gains.

Year District 4 Year Cohort <4 Year Cohort District 4 Year Cohort <4 Year Cohort
* Number of students with test scores for all of the years
1998 24 35 22 31 34 19
1999 26 36 23 33 40 23
2000 26 41 25 34 40 24
2001 27 40 25 33 46 30
N* 3259 1430 1829 2912 1391 1524

The focus of the Fresno Unified Science Education Office has been on teaching science in a way that is understandable and meaningful to students, with a strong literacy component that supports the development of reading skills as students acquire classification skills, oral communication skills, and positive attitudes toward science. Fresno Unified School District used the FOSS curriculum exclusively over the four-year period of this study. The FOSS program promoted the skills essential for all students to internalize and apply scientific concepts and practices. The frequency and spiraling design in which scientific, academic words were introduced and reinforced throughout FOSS enhanced the acquisition of academic language and good reading comprehension. This was important because 32% of Fresno Unified's 80,000 students are classified as English learners. Academic language development was further supported through expository literature in the FOSS Science Stories, hands-on investigations, embedded assessments, and teacher resource materials provided in each FOSS module. Additional reading lists were developed by the Fresno Science Office for each grade level module and promoted as extensions during English language arts and reading instruction, further supporting the acquisition of science content knowledge.

The FUSD science program was designed to ensure that all FUSD students participated in science instruction that required them to listen, understand, evaluate, and speak effectively using the appropriate conventions of language to communicate scientific ideas.

For more information on the science program in Fresno Unified, please contact Jerry Valadez, K–12 Science Coordinator (


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