how zoology boosts early literacy skills

Zoology and English: it’s not the most obvious curriculum pairing, but according to new research published at the University of Pennsylvania, the combination of the two could boost literacy in the early years.

Across 2016 and 2018, a team of researchers at the university tracked the progress of Kindergarten (Year 1) students in 71 classrooms, all of whom were studying an integrated science and literacy curriculum called “Zoology One”, developed by the American Reading Company.

Here, two academics from the university, Abigail Gray, a senior research investigator at the consortium for policy research in education, and Brooks Bowden, an assistant professor in the education policy division at the graduate school of education, discuss their research and what the findings can tell us about developing literacy skills in our youngest children.

Tes: The program you were testing combines science and literacy teaching. Why was this of interest to you?

Grey: I used to be a classroom teacher, and in my experience, content was much richer and more interesting when it was integrated. When I began my career as a researcher, I wanted to look at the science behind that, and explore this theory of change around integrating content areas to improve learning.

Bowden: We really were interested in integrated curricula in general, but specifically in science, because there was a huge potential for impact. There’s not much research on science, and in the US, there’s not enough science instruction happening in schools. As a result, there isn’t a pipeline of students growing up with a love of – and an interest in – science.

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How did the program work?

Grey: Zoology One is a one-year curriculum delivered for two hours each day. There are four nine-week units – the first is introductory, but then it covers zoology, ecology and entomology.

Overall, the components are very typical of a traditional literacy programme: teachers read aloud to their class and there is direct instruction on whichever area of ​​literacy the teacher is focusing on that day.

However, there is a particular emphasis on independent reading, which isn’t so typical here in the US, as well as a focus on integrating reading and writing in this programme, which, again, we don’t always see. Very often, we’ll see very distinct “writing time” or “reading time”, whereas this program combines the two.

There was also a specific focus on parental involvement: students were given books to read at home and encouraged to read for at least 30 minutes a day.

So, the idea is that although the program aims to teach reading and writing, this is done through engaging with science subject content. Is that right?

Grey: And it is. The program does not shy away from scientific language, and it exposes children to the language of science and the natural world. Children talk about hypotheses, habitats and entomology.

Our theory of change was that reading about animals and the natural world would build motivation to continue to read. As pupils become excited about lions, for example, they can build vocabulary and background knowledge. Then when the writing prompts are introduced, they pull everything together.

And is that what happened? Did literacy skills improve?

Bowden: When we tested the control group against the group that received the integrated curriculum, we found that the latter scored higher for motivation to read, passage comprehension and letter-naming fluency.

The impact around motivation to read was particularly found in boys, which is interesting, because young boys are typically less motivated to read in general. For us, this is the most exciting finding. If you can use an early exposure to literature to make a child a reader, you’ve changed their life, whether they score better on a test at the end of kindergarten or not, that motivation factor is going to accrue.

But comprehension too was a big gain, and we know that is the be-all and end-all in terms of reading. We want kids to be able to read for meaning, to be able to love and enjoy reading and to build a motivation to read – and comprehension is key to all of that.

Letter-naming fluency, the speed at which children name and get letters correct, is a big indicator that predicts literacy growth later in their academic year, and we saw that there was better growth in the treatment group than the control group for this.

Were there any areas in which students in the treatment group didn’t outperform the others?

Grey: Yes: writing, decoding and word identification didn’t see significant improvements. However, there was an impact in all of these areas when we looked at teachers who had implemented the curriculum precisely.

Essentially, what that tells us is that even with a less than great implementation, we could expect to see impacts in letter-naming fluency and comprehension and motivation.

Where teachers weren’t implementing the program precisely, what were they doing differently?

Bowden: It was mostly around reading at home: every day, teachers should have sent students home with books to read, but some were resistant to giving brand-new books to students to take home, in case they didn’t get them back.

Overall, then, you found that an integrated approach to literacy can have significant impacts on development. Why do you think it works particularly well for this age group?

Grey: Because it’s fun, and children want to do things that are fun. We forget that when we build our curriculum.

Give them a book about bugs, that’s what they want to tell you about, that’s how they build their listening, speaking and writing skills. To me, it’s very simple, and it’s very intuitive.

I would love for other educators to see our study and think, “Oh, I could try this,” because there are teachers from the study who have continued to offer it, even though it’s not really in the direction that the school district has moved . And that’s because they’ve never enjoyed teaching so much, and they’ve never seen pupils thrive like this.

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