Wonders of Science and Vertical Learning


Joan S. Gottlieb


Speaking of science, do any of youse have these?

I love the Steck-Vaughn "Wonders of Science" titles by Joan S. Gottlieb - love them enough that they're becoming a source of friction between me and my public library.

I've talked before about background knowledge in social studies, and the problem of learners being able to read beyond their experience. The more common problem in science seems to be that background material is presented only at a very high reading level. These books create a wonderful bridge between basic literacy materials (say, the PRACE materials at reading level 4) and GED prep materials. I haven't done a readability on Gottlieb's books, but judging from who in my class has or hasn't found them accessible I'd call them a 5 or 6.

My favourite use for them is as part of what I imagine as a vertical learning column. I say "vertical" because the learner is moving up through higher reading levels, and "column" because they are remaining with a relatively small topic or theme. In other words, they are meeting the same ideas presented in increasingly complex language or graphics.

Picture this. A learner with an independent reading level of 7 works on their own through the water plants section of Water Life. We talk a little about the material as well - we have to, because there are questions but no answers (I'm guessing there's a "teacher's edition" somewhere). Sometimes, at this point, we seek additional explanations with Youtube or my globe or whatever. Then, I pull six or eight questions out of a Gage GED-level science book that focus on water plants. The learner works their way through these questions, with me sitting close by. They get some right, get some wrong, and we talk about the questions - about the science content, but also about reading strategies or how charts work. Then, they go back to working independently with the next unit of Water Life.

The advantage I see in these topic or theme based learning units which employ a range of reading-level materials is that learners are able to engage with GED level materials even when, strictly speaking, their reading skills or vocabulary aren't up to it. The alternative, and my former practice, was to give them only materials "at their level" and resist every effort they made to work out of the GED books. This was hard on our relationship, and on my self-image as a facilitator rather than a teacher or somebody's boss.

What happens when they meet material they just don't "get"? The same thing that happens in daily life. They come away with questions, knowledge, a larger vocabulary, and a new platform or starting point from which to approach the material again.

I don't stray far from my learners when we do all this level jumping. I watch very closely for signs of frustration or discouragement. I try to make sure they really are reading about the same thing - the earth's plates, human cell growth, photosynthesis - when they try the upper level material. I'm painfully aware that I risk setting them up for failure. Sometimes I forget to breathe and my chest hurts.

But it's a way to honour their desire to prepare for the GED as quickly and directly as possible. Plus, I'm helping them build reading strategies for difficult material - that's always part of our conversation - and I'm helping them gain necessary background knowledge in science.

It's not a perfect approach. It's vexing that, so far, I've only been able to find three of Gottlieb's titles. I'd be more comfortable with a greater range of science books at different levels. But, right now, this feels like the best I can do.

wendell dryden blog

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