Honing Literacy and Preparing for Praxis

10/15/2011 - NSTA Reports—Mary Bigelow


Editor’s Note

Mary Bigelow was a middle school life and physical science teacher for 16 years and a high school computer science teacher for 11 years (also a district technology coordinator). She had a brief stint in higher education and recently retired as a regional administrator.

Our district has a goal for every teacher to reinforce student literacy skills. Most of our students seem to have decent reading levels, and the reading specialists provide extra help for those who need it. What can we do in science classes to improve student literacy?
—Hailey, Richmond, Virginia

You’re fortunate your students are reading at or near grade level. However, in addition to sentences and paragraphs, the typical science textbook is full of colorful diagrams, photographs, flowcharts, graphs, maps, tables, and sidebars. Many of these are also found in online or electronic resources. All of these are (or should be) correlated with the text.

Students are challenged to interpret visuals as they read informational text. Do your students really understand the purpose of visuals and know how to make sense of them? Perhaps your school’s goal could be adapted for visual literacy in science.

The May 2011 edition of The Reading Teacher has an excellent article by Erin M. McTigue and Amanda C. Flowers on this topic. In “Science Visual Literacy: Learners’ Perceptions and Knowledge of Diagrams, ” the authors describe their efforts to understand student perceptions of visuals and how students interpret them. The study used elementary students, but I suspect some of their findings could apply to secondary students. A membership in the International Reading Association is required to access the article, so I’ll summarize.

Students from grades 6–8 responded to four different graphic representations of the water cycle. Among their findings, the authors noted students “sometimes” or “rarely” looked at the diagrams in their textbooks and reported that the only function of the diagram was to visually represent what was in the text. Students often misinterpreted the structure of the visuals.

The article suggests several strategies for teachers:

  • Model how to interpret a graphic, using a think-aloud.
  • Assess student knowledge of graphics through think-alouds or questions probing their interpretations.
  • Provide multiple representations of the same object, such as a photograph and a diagram. Help students compare and contrast what can be learned from each.

Creating visuals is another aspect of visual literacy often used in science classes: drawing and labeling diagrams, organizing data into tables, graphing, and using graphic organizers. Knowing more about the purpose of visuals may help students make better choices when they create web pages, presentations, or videos.

The authors make additional suggestions in “Visual Literacy in Science” in the July 2010 issue ofScience Scope. This article has four brief lessons introducing students to the concept of visual literacy. These could complement the“textbook tour” many teachers use to point out the purpose of text structures.

If your principal needs further evidence of the importance of visual literacy, you could cite the authors’ note that more than half of the questions on standardized tests required students to interpret graphical representations.

I am an elementary teacher, and I’m thinking of taking the Praxis test to be [certified] to teach science in middle school. Could you suggest resources to help me prepare for the test?
—Twyla, Mississippi

I shared your question with a colleague who had been an elementary math department chair, but decided to make the switch to middle school. She had a few suggestions.

First of all, familiarize yourself with the test. The Educational Testing Service (ETS) website has a section on the middle school science exam (http://bit.ly/qdAVyR) with a test blueprint, a list of topics, and sample questions. You can download a PDF so you can add notes as you prepare. Prioritize the list of topics into those you’re most familiar with, those you need to review, and those you’re unfamiliar with.

For this last category, you could visit NSTA’s Learning Center and look at the list of Science Objects. These free online content modules for elementary, middle, and high school topics take about two hours to complete. Use the middle or high school ones to review the content on the Praxis list. NSTA’s SciLinks has collections of web pages on a variety of topics, too.

I have never taken a Praxis exam, so I posed your question on social media sites (Twitter, Facebook, the NSTA List Server, and the Middle School Portal 2). Our colleagues have other suggestions for you:

  • “I used the ETS books as more of a topic guide: I went through the book looking for topics I thought I should brush up on, and then studied those topics...online.”—Cheryl from the Middle School Portal 2.
  • “From the Praxis site, you can print practice tests and advice for free. I found it useful to review the written short-essay questions [in which] they give you examples of answers that got full credit compared to answers that did not.”—Kathleen from the NSTA List Server
  • “If you would ever consider teaching a high school science course, you might want to take that Praxis, assuming that a high school credential would also allow you to teach at the middle school level.”—Jessica via the NSTA List Server

From my experiences in graduate school, having a study group can be very helpful. Access NSTA’s social media sites or the Middle School Portal 2 to ask if anyone else is studying for the test, and form an online study group. Or check whether any local colleges or other school districts have Praxis prep courses.

Keep a journal of how you prepared. When you pass (notice I said “when,” not “if”), I’d be glad to post your advice on my blog. Good luck!

Check out more of Ms. Mentor’s advice on diverse topics at www.nsta.org/mentor.

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