By introducing STEM into early literacy lessons, students have the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of technical subjects, while increasing their ability to communicate, think critically, and design with empathy.

There are few things as fundamental as literacy in early childhood education. Discovering ways to increase literacy without teaching literacy, though, is a relatively new concept.

Across the United States, end of grade scores indicate that elementary and middle school students struggle with science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) related subjects. Furthermore, these students are also lacking 21st century skills (critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and communication). So, what can be done to solve these challenges?

The primary focus of STEM education in the United States over the last decade has been job-readiness skills – building a deeper bench of technically-minded thinkers and doers for the future. But creating strong foundational elements in both literacy and STEM-related subject matter has become increasingly important at every level. By introducing STEM into early literacy lessons, students have the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of technical subjects, while increasing their ability to communicate, think critically, and design with empathy.

Literacy in the 21st Century

Literacy has traditionally been characterized as the ability to read and write, but today, literacy is more than the sum of its parts. It’s about communicating, collaborating, and connecting – the skills needed to drive today’s successful workforce. And until recently, STEM coursework has been focused more on the technology, and less on the problem it's designed to solve. When it comes to STEM education, many think of students building robots and designing cars, but by integrating STEM and literacy into the early childhood curriculum, students can think beyond building a robot, and develop a deeper understanding of how these skills can be employed across subject matters, careers, and elsewhere in the real world. This presents the concept of teaching literacy without teaching literacy. By implementing literacy practice through STEM education, educators are guiding their students to develop STEM-literacy competencies.

So, what can artificial intelligence help us achieve as a society, and how can a solar farm increase quality of life for a community? The ability to answer questions like these are critical for a future-ready student, one who possesses the 21st century skills necessary for a variety of jobs, both in and out of STEM fields. These skills are essential for student success in the classroom and more importantly, in the real world. Creating opportunities for students to ask questions, talk through challenges, and see the ‘why’ allows them to understand how they can apply these skills and systems beyond the classroom. That’s where literacy comes in. 

But How?

The first step to successfully introducing STEM into a literacy framework is through teacher preparation, professional development, and consistent coaching. We don’t need to throw the literacy book away and start from scratch, but we do need to think about our methods a bit differently. 

Like we’ve seen with Project-Based Learning (PBL), creating opportunities for teachers to incorporate small elements of new ideas into their lessons can pay off like compound interest. As confidence builds among teachers, media coordinators, coaches, and school leaders, STEM-related subject matter integration can occur more organically. This happens when policy, planning, coaching, and Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) work together to improve student outcomes. 

With a deep bank of expertise in literacy, and a variety of resources and subject matter experts in STEM fields, RTI International’s (RTI) professional development programs are designed to create diverse experiences for teachers to engage in explorations, dialogue, and planning to explore the intersections of literacy and STEM practices. Through text-rich STEM experiences, teachers consider practices that promote in depth STEM and literacy learning. Professional development often features simulated student experiences where teachers engage in and experience a lesson through a student lens to see how STEM and literacy practices can be integrated to create a meaningful and relevant learning experience for students. Additionally, professional development provides opportunities for teachers to engage in diverse expert interviews, career panels, and visits with industry partners. This provides a space for teachers to network and explore opportunities for students to participate in similar experiences that will allow them to see themselves in STEM careers. 

Earlier this year, RTI held a virtual Building Literacy through STEM workshop. The two-day professional development event brought together teachers, media specialists, and STEM coaches alike to engage in text-rich STEM experiences. These sessions allowed participants to consider practices that would promote deep STEM and literacy learning and included exercises such as: 

  • simulated student experiences
  • collaborative idea boards
  • design challenges
  • academic language in classroom discourse
  • reverse engineering
  • supported planning

Participants walked away with a better understanding of the value of integrating literacy and STEM, how to evaluate instructional practices that promote literacy learning in STEM, and how to collaborate to design STEM instruction while including deep literacy practices.

One great example of STEM-literacy integration includes using science trade books and biographies to support design thinking. By using biographies and trade books as mentor texts, students reverse-engineer the design-thinking process used by other inventors in order to find new and innovative ways to improve the human condition. Another example is using the engineering design process to design a product to improve the experience for a character in a children’s book, such as designing a house to withstand the “big bad wolf” or creating an indestructible chair for Goldilocks. To accomplish this, students must think deeply about the characters, setting, and plot of the story to inform their design. STEM-literacy integration can also include creating opportunities for students to (1) use coding, video games, or other more technical methods to retell or develop stories, or (2) use materials, such as Legos®, to build scenes from a story to highlight plot points. By implementing practices such as these, students develop the ability to design and communicate solutions to real world problems with confidence and thoughtfulness. 

Helping educators to implement literacy through STEM is an effective practice to teach literacy without teaching literacy. And if we think of it as a universal thread that ties all subject matters together, we can further weave it across the curriculum and develop students who are better prepared for careers and life. For questions related to STEM and early literacy or to learn more about how we can help you implement this practice into your classroom, contact us at educationservices@rti.org.