Integrating Literacy and Science Instruction Boosts Preschoolers’ Vocabulary and Science Knowledge

Teaching preschool children about insects and plants by reading them informational science books helps build both their vocabulary and knowledge of science concepts, finds a NYU Steinhardt study.

The findings, published in the June issue of the Elementary School Journal, support combining literacy and science instruction in the classroom, enabling children to learn through text.

Children’s vocabulary, knowledge of concepts, and reading comprehension may be shaped by the type of text – such as narrative or nonfiction information books – they read.

“Informational texts are not commonly read to preschool children in the classroom or at home, but they are a primary source of technical vocabulary that allow young children to grasp complex understandings in different subject areas. It is critical to consider how these information books may be used to support content instruction,” said Susan B. Neuman, professor of childhood and literacy education at NYU Steinhardt and the study’s lead author.

Recent studies have looked at efforts to integrate literacy skills and subject knowledge, like science, using different genres in book-reading programs for preschoolers. While young children are highly capable of learning content-specific words, relatively little is known about the effects of book-reading programs on developing children’s content knowledge or ability to acquire and understand critical concepts in a subject area.

This study examined an interactive book-reading approach – where teachers use structured techniques like asking questions to engage children in the text while reading to them – that integrated literacy and science instruction. The researchers sought to understand whether teaching science vocabulary using informational texts could improve low-income preschoolers’ word, concept, and content knowledge in the life sciences.

Teachers in 17 preschool classrooms participated, along with 268 preschool children.  Nine classrooms were assigned to the 12-week science book-reading intervention, which was implemented four days a week, 12-15 minutes a day. The intervention included instruction using video clips, information books, and picture cards, and covered four science areas: insects, the human body, marine mammals, and plants. The other eight classrooms continued with business as usual, where the teacher selected a storybook and read aloud to children.

In the classrooms where science books were used, researchers found significant effects on children’s vocabulary, concept knowledge, and content knowledge compared to their peers who used other texts.

Preschoolers who were read science books gained significantly more science-related vocabulary and concepts than did their peers, learning to link words and concepts – for instance, insects have antennae that they use to smell things. These children also gained knowledge of core science themes, such as understanding the lifecycle of a butterfly.

“The results contribute to the growing body of evidence suggesting that integrating word and world knowledge not only benefit children’s language development but also support their science learning outcomes,” Neuman said. “The implication of these findings is especially significant in the age of Common Core standards and the expectation that children should develop knowledge through text.”

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