Apr 04 2024

Incorporate Literacy Tools in K–12 STEM Subjects

Reading comprehension is as important in science, technology, engineering and math as it is in language arts classes.

K–12 students across the U.S. are struggling with literacy skills.

“We have secondary students who have third-grade reading levels,” says Sharo Dickerson, director of digital and learning resources at El Paso Independent School District in Texas.

Reading levels for 13-year-old students have been declining since 2012, with the sharpest drop between 2020 and 2023, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress’s long-term trend assessment. Interestingly, mathematics scores closely follow the same drops, the assessment report shows.

“If a student is not able to read the very basic alphabet, that is a problem because then you already have a challenge there for the student,” Dickerson explains. “To push mathematical concepts would not be successful because you’re continuously setting up the student for failure.”

Teachers in all subject areas need to reinforce the importance of literacy in K–12 students, especially as they’re building these foundations at an early age. And while there are many tools to help improve reading levels in students, not all teachers feel responsible for training on and implementing those solutions.

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At a TCEA conference session in February, CDW K–12 education strategist Victoria Thompson noted that schools often have a hard time getting science and math teachers to come to training sessions on literacy tools such as Microsoft’s Reading Progress or Immersive Reader. She added that students frequently benefit from these tools in science, technology, engineering and math classes.

“All teachers are reading teachers, but our approach to teaching literacy is different based on our background,” Dickerson says. “Literacy is not the sole responsibility of the teacher teaching English, language arts and reading, Spanish, or any other language-related courses. This is the responsibility of everyone.”

Building Students’ Literacy Skills and Inspiring Interest in STEM

While literacy skills are important through all grade levels, they’re best built when students are younger. “There’s a big push for using reading tools in elementary because that is the very foundation of literacy,” Dickerson says.

While elementary students may not have dedicated math or science classes, there are still ways to incorporate STEM topics into their learning. This benefits students in multiple ways: It introduces them to STEM vocabulary, and it helps build their interest in the subject matter.

“Be targeted about what literature you’re using in your classroom,” says Shelly Waller, instructional technology coach at Prince William County Public Schools in Virginia. “Make sure you’re pulling books that are accurate and have updated, current information, but also have books that are representative of the different cultures within your classroom. It’s really important for the students to see people of other cultures and backgrounds engaging in science because everyone can be a scientist.”

Waller, who was a Department of Defense STEM Ambassador for the 2021-2022 school year, is a strong advocate of STEM literature. She says that introducing students to science and science books earlier “prompts them to dive into those science concepts a little bit more.”

MORE ON EDTECH: Robots are helping to improve K–12 schools.

Working with Applications That Eliminate Barriers and Support Literacy

Working in a district that uses a lot of Microsoft tools, Dickerson is familiar with the applications Thompson talked about at TCEA. She works with and trains teachers on tools such as Reading Progress, Reading Coach, PowerPoint Presenter Coach, Microsoft Lens and Microsoft Translator.

“El Paso ISD resides in a border city. We get a lot of students who are bilingual,” Dickerson says. “Also, we have Fort Bliss, which is a humongous military base in El Paso, so we get students who speak languages other than English and Spanish.”

To support these students, Dickerson uses the capabilities in Immersive Reader, Microsoft Lens and other programs that translate written or spoken words into her students’ and their guardians’ native languages.

“The parent determines what language they want to use so they can understand what the teacher is communicating,” she says. “That’s what I love about Immersive Reader. We can upload documents, PDFs or passages and have it translated to the desired language of the learner or the parent.”

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And just as language barriers aren’t unique to language classes at El Paso ISD, neither is literacy.

“Science is a good marriage between reading and mathematics because you still have to perform your basic mathematical operation, but you also need to have the ability to put together sentences to describe or come up with your findings,” Dickerson says. “So, you also need to know the vocabulary of any science topic that you are learning.”

When students are struggling in these classes, educators at El Paso ISD can use a math, science or social studies passage in Reading Coach to help students better comprehend the subject matter, she adds.

Sharo Dickerson
All teachers are reading teachers, but our approach to teaching literacy is different based on our background.”

Sharo Dickerson Director of Digital and Learning Resources, El Paso Independent School District

Increasing Ed Tech Adoption Among Teachers Through Training

For educators to use the reading tools from Microsoft or other resources, they first must understand how these solutions work. This requires buy-in and training.

“We did a major push last year, and the year before, to really saturate not only our campuses but also our different departments with different training components on the use of these tools,” Dickerson says. “You need to have a fearless leader who will advocate for it and push for it.”

For this, she says, it’s important to build relationships with administrators and collaborate with different departments. This gives tech departments more space at the table to impact budgets and calendars. Schedules for professional development can make or break a teacher’s willingness to learn new tools.

“If you are saying, ‘We need time with the teachers,’ then you need to make the time,” she explains. “The district did that by providing half-day professional development days.” 

Even if there isn’t 100 percent buy-in, teachers will be more likely to participate and go on from there to share their skills with colleagues throughout the district.

“I’ve always believed in empowerment and sharing the wealth of knowledge and skills with other people, because trends will continue to happen and changes will continue to happen,” Dickerson says. “So, my team needs to be on our toes and make sure we’re steps ahead.”

UP NEXT: Create massive change in K–12, even with small IT teams.

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