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Integrating literacy into phenomena-based instruction

Courtney Donahue
Feb 24, 2020

High school chemistry was my favorite class. There was something about the way my teacher talked about chemicals and reactions that just clicked in my brain--I could vividly imagine the way everything around me was made up of atoms. After receiving my Ph.D in chemistry, I realized my biggest passion was to be able to help students find their love of science the same way my teachers were able to do for me, which led me to work at Newsela where I could shed a light on science while unlocking the written word for students. 

On a day-to-day at Newsela, I collaborate with a team of former science journalists, editors, and teachers to create engaging and accurate articles for Newsela Science. Our instructional content team thoughtfully maps text sets and Units to standards like the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) or Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS). From there, we on the editorial team, source articles from our media partners like Scientific American, NASA, and others with the goal of aligning fundamental science concepts with exciting, real-world material. 

Teaching for the NGSS requires a fundamental shift in the types of texts used for science instruction. Rather than asking students to read a chapter in a textbook that explains the ins-and-outs of a particular science concept, a teacher might start by asking students to read about an event, or phenomenon, that is happening in the world around them. That’s why connecting what students are learning in the science classroom to what they are reading on Newsela is especially important for the phenomena-based approach used in the NGSS. Take ice cream, for example. Did you ever consider that there's a scientific explanation for why it is possible to scoop ice cream at temperatures well below the freezing point of water? With a phenomena-based approach, an accessible topic such as ice cream can be explored to reveal observable, and sometimes surprising events. Once the event is made known, students then dive into the hard work of working together to ask questions, design experiments, gather data, and draw conclusions—thinking and acting like scientists—with the ultimate goal of crafting a compelling explanation to account for the original event.

Take for example, the article, “How to make a pretty rock” from Cricket Media featured in our Elementary NGSS Phenomena collection. This article, included in the 5th grade Properties of Matter unit, was originally sourced to explain ways we can identify materials based on their properties. Typically, this topic might get covered in demonstrations and a hands-on activity focusing on the way materials respond to magnets. However,  while hands-on explorations are a great way to drive student-led inquiry, there's also an opportunity to integrate literacy into a lesson like this. With Newsela, teachers are able to weave literacy into their phenomena-based instruction by utilizing articles as a jumping off point.  Here, the article can serve as a phenomenon that students not only find interesting, but also requires them to understand the underlying chemistry. Diamonds and graphite are used to compare how materials that are both made from the same chemical element have very different functions. Graphite would never last as a family heirloom, and diamonds would destroy notebooks if they were used as pencils. Behind these uses are the way atoms interlock to allow these two very different materials to be so well-known. Through the article we can explore atoms and the properties of chemicals, making sure to build science knowledge at five different reading levels. 

Elementary NGSS Phenomena collection

Discover units in the Elementary NGSS Phenomena Collection.

Physical and Chemical Changes Unit: Properties of Matter

Explore Physical and Chemical Changes Unit, including the Properties of Matter topin the 5th grade NGSS Phenomena collection. Topics are paired with Lesson Sparks and activities, while teachers can view the standards the unit aligns with.

How to make a pretty rock 

The “How to make a pretty rock” article explains ways we can identify materials based on their properties and can be used as phenomena that help students understand the underlying chemistry.

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