“Should we invest our limited education resources in teaching critical reading skills or in what’s known as STEM — science, technology, engineering and math?”
This is the question that Chris Roe, CEO of the California STEM Learning Network, and Ralph Smith, managing director of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, ask in a recent post on the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet Blog.
“The truth is we can and must do both,” Roe and Smith write. “Clearly, budding scientists and engineers can’t comprehend complex texts if they can’t read. At the same time, science and math have the potential to engage youngsters, encouraging them to read more. This improves their chances of reading proficiently by the key third grade milestone, when students pivot from learning to read and begin reading to learn.”
Just as third grade reading is a critical educational benchmark that predicts children’s chances of success as students, so is early math aptitude. Jobs requiring STEM skills, the authors note, are estimated to grow at twice the rate of other jobs over the next 10 years.
The statistics on children’s proficiency in math and science are as disturbing as performance on reading assessments. Two-thirds of the nation’s fourth graders do not read proficiently, Roe and Smith write. Likewise, two-thirds of fourth graders are not proficient in science, and 60% are not proficient in math.
Roe and Smith offer a number of suggestions to integrate STEM and literacy instruction, starting with using science texts in early reading lessons. “Young children,” they write, “can comprehend scientific concepts and often prefer reading about spiders and dinosaurs to fiction.” Literacy skills – reading, writing, speaking, vocabulary – should all be integrated in STEM activities. As the authors note, the Common Core State Standards emphasize these key literacy skills. “Naturally, this is important for STEM instruction,” they write, “since texts beyond the third grade require students to decode unfamiliar terms, recognize advanced vocabulary and make sense of increasingly complex and interrelated ideas.”
Accomplishing this cross-disciplinary vision, they write, will require adjustments not only in curriculum, but also in teacher preparation and assessments. “Given the long-term benefits for our children and our economy, this is the only real choice we have to ensure that our students can read and flourish in the subjects that are already defining this century.”