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Ask A REL Response

January 2017


What research has been conducted on teaching reading comprehension in science content classes?


Following an established REL Southeast research protocol, we conducted a search for research reports as well as descriptive study articles on teaching reading comprehension in science content classes. We focused on identifying resources that specifically addressed the effects of intervention on student outcomes in K-12 education. The sources included ERIC and other federally funded databases and organizations, research institutions, academic research databases, and general Internet search engines (For details, please see the methods section at the end of this memo.)

We have not evaluated the quality of references and the resources provided in this response. We offer them only for your reference. Also, we searched the references in the response from the most commonly used resources of research, but they are not comprehensive and other relevant references and resources may exist.

Research References

  1. Greenleaf, C., Litman, C., Hanson, T., Rosen, R., Boscardin, C., Herman, J., . . . Jones, B. (2011). Integrating Literacy and Science in Biology: Teaching and Learning Impacts of Reading Apprenticeship Professional Development. American Educational Research Journal, 48(3), 647-717.
    From the abstract: "This study examined the effects of professional development integrating academic literacy and biology instruction on science teachers' instructional practices and students' achievement in science and literacy. The intervention consisted of 10 days of professional development in Reading Apprenticeship, an instructional framework integrating metacognitive inquiry routines into subject-area instruction to make explicit the tacit reasoning processes, problem-solving strategies, and textualfeatures that shape literacy practices in academic disciplines. The study utilized a group-randomized, experimental design and multiple measures of teacher implementation and student learning and targeted groups historically unrepresented in the sciences. Hierarchical linear modeling procedures were used to estimate program impacts. Intervention teachers demonstrated increased support for science literacy learning and use of metacognitive inquiry routines, reading comprehension instruction, and collaborative learning structures compared to controls. Students in treatment classrooms performed better than controls on state standardized assessments in English language arts, reading comprehension, and biology. ["Integrating Literacy and Science in Biology: Teaching and Learning Impacts of Reading Apprenticeship Professional Development" was written with Sarah Madden and Barbara Jones.] (Contains 3 notes, 4 figures, and 12 tables.)"
  2. Fang, Z., & Schleppegrell, M. J. (2010). Disciplinary literacies across content areas: Supporting secondary reading through functional language analysis. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 53, 587-597.
    From the abstract: "As the knowledge that students have to learn becomes more specialized and complex in secondary schools, the language that constructs such knowledge also becomes more technical, dense, abstract, and complex, patterning in ways that enable content experts to engage in specialized social and semiotic practices. In order to effectively engage with the texts of disciplinary learning at the secondary level, adolescents need to develop new literacy skills and strategies in each subject area. This paper illuminates some of the ways language is used in secondary science, history, and mathematics and describes an approach to secondary reading, functional language analysis, that offers teachers strategies for focusing on language itself as a way to help students comprehend and critique the advanced texts of secondary schooling. (Contains 2 figures and 2 tables.)"
  3. Kosanovich, M. L., Reed, D. K., & Miller, D. H. (2010). Bringing literacy strategies into content instruction: Professional learning for secondary-level teachers. Portsmouth, NH: RMC Research Corporation, Center on Instruction.
    From the abstract: "This document provides research-based guidance on academic literacy instruction in the content areas, specifically focusing on the effective use of text in content areas. It reviews the research evidence about content-area literacy instruction for adolescents and suggests ways teachers can use content-area texts to enable students to understand the vocabulary and concepts they contain. This document also provides a brief synopsis of working with adult learners and the most promising professional development practices identified in research. Intended for use by literacy specialists and other technical assistance providers in their work with states to improve educational policy and practice in adolescent literacy, it describes ways to assist states, districts, and schools in helping teachers develop the kinds of pedagogical skills needed to implement instructional practices that have been shown to improve student literacy outcomes."
  4. Seifert, K., & Espin, C. (2012). Improving Reading of Science Text for Secondary Students With Learning Disabilities: Effects of Text Reading, Vocabulary Learning, and Combined Approaches to Instruction. Learning Disability Quarterly, 35(4), 236-247.
    From the abstract: "This study examined the effects of three types of reading interventions on the science text reading of secondary students with learning disabilities (LD). Twenty 10th-grade students with LD participated in the study. Using a within-subjects design, the relative effects of three different instructional approaches--text reading, vocabulary learning, and text reading plus vocabulary learning--were examined and compared with a control condition in which participants received no instruction. The effects of the interventions on reading fluency, vocabulary knowledge, and comprehension were examined. Results revealed that the text-reading and combined interventions had a positive effect on reading fluency and vocabulary knowledge, and that the vocabulary intervention had a positive effect on vocabulary knowledge. Potential effects were found for the comprehension measures. Results imply that students' reading of science text, and knowledge of the vocabulary used in that text, can be improved with direct instruction. (Contains 5 tables and 2 figures.)"
  5. Shanahan, T., & Shanahan, C. (2008). Teaching disciplinary literacy to adolescents: Rethinking content-area literacy. Harvard Educational Review, 78, 40-59.
    From the abstract: "In this article, Timothy and Cynthia Shanahan argue that "disciplinary literacy"--advanced literacy instruction embedded within content-area classes such as math, science, and social studies--should be a focus of middle and secondary school settings. Moving beyond the oft-cited "every teacher a teacher of reading" philosophy that has historically frustrated secondary content-area teachers, the Shanahans present data collected during the first two years of a study on disciplinary literacy that reveal how content experts and secondary content teachers read disciplinary texts, make use of comprehension strategies, and subsequently teach those strategies to adolescent readers. Preliminary findings suggest that experts from math, chemistry, and history read their respective texts quite differently; consequently, both the content-area experts and secondary teachers in this study recommend different comprehension strategies for work with adolescents. This study not only has implications for which comprehension strategies might best fit particular disciplinary reading tasks, but also suggests how students may be best prepared for the reading, writing, and thinking required by advanced disciplinary coursework. (Contains 1 table.)"
  6. Sinatra, G., Broughton, S., Diakidoy, I., Kendeou, P., & Van den Broek, P. (2011). Bridging Reading Comprehension and Conceptual Change in Science Education: The Promise of Refutation Text. Reading Research Quarterly, 46(4), 374-393.
    From the abstract: "The use of texts in science classrooms has waned significantly over the past two decades. However, recently, researchers have shown renewed interest in the use of refutation texts as a tool for promoting conceptual change and science learning. In this article, we examine the intersection of conceptual change and reading comprehension research in science education. We begin by explaining how researchers in conceptual change have turned their interests toward text comprehension. We then examine models of reading comprehension that contribute to our understanding of how text can promote science learning in general and conceptual change in particular. Next, we examine recent empirical research concerning the effect of refutation text in promoting conceptual change in science. We close with suggestions for future research that seeks to integrate these two areas for the advancement of both scientific literacy and literacy skill development."


Keywords and Search Strings
The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • Reading comprehension
  • Scinece class

Databases and Resources
We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of over 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences. Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and PsychInfo.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the publication: References and resources published for last 15 years, from 2001 to present, were include in the search and review.
  • Search Priorities of Reference Sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations, academic databases, including ERIC, EBSCO databases, JSTOR database, PsychInfo, PsychArticle, and Google Scholar.
  • Methodology: Following methodological priorities/considerations were given in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types - randomized control trials,, quasi experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, etc., generally in this order (b) target population, samples (representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected, etc.), study duration, etc. (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, etc.

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the Southeast Region (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory Southeast at Florida State University. This memorandum was prepared by REL Southeast under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0011, administered by Florida State University. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.