< Back

When Reading Levels Become Gatekeepers

As a STEM organization, we're often asked about the importance of English courses when pursuing a high-quality math and science education. Sara Leikin, NMSI's Director of Teaching & Learning Strategic Initiatives, draws from her personal experience to speak to one of the obstacles that students can face when their reading levels fall behind.


Reading proficiency is a gatekeeper.

In 2009, I opened the International High School of New Orleans with an awesome team of teachers and a diverse and dynamic 9th grade class. During the second week of classes, I was in my office when I heard yelling and scuffling chairs from the biology classroom across the hall. Before I could open the door, a student came storming right past me, into the office, threw herself into a chair at my desk and cried, 

“Ms. Leikin, I can’t take it anymore! I can’t take that man’s class!” 

Things I knew at that moment: The biology teacher worked tirelessly with his colleagues to ensure alignment of units and materials. I had spent time in his classroom daily since the start of school and although there were other areas of improvement to work on, I was not expecting this student, a normally friendly and outgoing young woman, to be in my office, loudly proclaiming, 

“I can’t take that man’s class! I can’t understand him!”

We sat for a few minutes, and as she calmed down, I asked her to tell me what she meant by, “I can’t understand him.”

“I can’t understand the words coming out of his mouth. I can’t read the nonsense he’s writing on the board.”

And here’s where my education in science education got a healthy kick in the behind.

What we finally figured out was that this student — who had passed the Louisiana state tests to enter 9th grade, came to us with straight A's from the small parochial school she had attended K-8, and whose mother had proudly told me was the “valedictorian” of her 8th grade class — could only read at a 4th grade level. 

teacher-in-classroom.pngShe had become very good at reading body language, taking cues from classmates and asking questions to understand context in her other classes. When faced with the vocabulary of biology, however, her coping mechanisms failed her. Not only because she couldn’t decipher the text, but she also could no longer depend on her classmates. 

After delving into reading Lexile scores of all our students and conversations with our entire school community, we came to the realization that the majority of our students, even those reading on grade level or above, were challenged by the literacy components of biology, including vocabulary, language structures found in the text, and comprehension of tables and charts.

In a 2007 study of over 1,600 high school students from three states, reading ability was as critical to students’ science grades and state-level assessment scores as the amount of science knowledge they possessed (Diep, 2014).

As early as the 3rd grade, success or failure in reading subject-area texts begins to shape students’ academic achievement (Stanovich, 1986). As students move up in grade level, continued difficulty in accessing academic texts can shape their choice of (and access to) courses and negatively impact how they are assessed on achievement exams that require not only subject-area knowledge, but high levels of reading and comprehension skills.  

The challenge is that many content area teachers, especially in the sciences, have not been trained in literacy practices and reading comprehension and vocabulary strategies are rarely taught in content-area classes. Recognizing that many of the Common Core State Standards in Mathematics and English Language Arts and Next Generation Science Standards are interrelated (here’s an awesome Venn diagram from Stanford), teachers in all content areas need to be provided with enhanced professional development to increase their knowledge of literacy strategies and how to implement them in their classrooms. 

Reading proficiency is a gatekeeper.

As a national catalyst for STEM education that impacts those furthest from opportunity, how are we integrating literacy practices and strategies into our services? How are we using our programs to prepare teachers and students for the literacy demands of all AP courses? The Teaching & Learning team at NMSI is considering these questions as we design new program elements and engage in conversations with partners. 

This month, take some time to think about how you (in your home or classroom) can promote literacy with your kids. It can be as simple as reading together, checking for understanding during complex topics or starting a student book club. We'd love to hear you successes, roadblocks or ideas. 

Sara Leikin
Director, Teaching & Learning Strategic Initiatives