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STEM Education


Promoting Literacy-
Emhedded, Authentic
STEM Instruction for
Students With Disahilities
and Other Struggling
Maya Israel, Kathie Maynard, and Pamela Williamson
Larissa is a 5th grader with a learning
disability in the area of reading. She
attends an urban school with a high
number of students receiving free and
reduced lunch, as well as a large popu-
lation of students receiving special edu-
cation services. Today, Larissa is partic-
ipating in shared reading of a science
book about planets in the solar system.
Her class first predicted the content of
the book based on text clues and brain-
stormed questions. They then added
vocabulary words and definitions in
their own language to the "Science
Words/Everyday Words" chart posted in
the classroom. The teacher, Mr. Henry,
then modeled a text-paraphrasing strat-
egy before the students' turn to sum-
marize the next passage. The next day.
Larissa and her peers examined pic-
tures of planets with accompanying
fact sheets. In groups, they used the
"data" about the planets to make com-
parisons between the planets. Different
groups made statements such as, "Nep-
tune is farther from the Sun than
Saturn." and "Venus's composition is
rocky just like Mars. "
Why All Hie Emphasis on
Many educational researchers have
written about the need for students to
gain a strong foundational understand-
ing in science, technology, engineering,
and mathematics (STEM). Most often,
we hear about the need to expand the
pipeline of students entering STEM
fields (National Science Foundation,
2011). Having an understanding of
STEM, however, is not only necessary
for those who are interested in STEM
careers, but is critically important for
all citizens to be able to make
informed decisions about the scientific
and technical Issues affecting their
lives (Matthews, 2007). Despite this
need for STEM literacy, students with
disabilities have consistently under-
performed in STEM coursework
(AccessSTEM, 2007). There are many
reasons for this underperformance,
including the following:
STEM instruction often focuses on
abstract concepts (Brigham,
Scruggs, & Mastropieri, 2011).
Many STEM-related concepts are
described through difficult vocabu-
lary within complex expository texts
(Lee & Erdogan, 2007).
Teachers often focus on a rigid
interpretation of the scientific
method that involves complex, mul-
tistep problems with limited sup-
ports (Villanueva & Hand, 2011).
The way schools schedule and
organize instruction often limits
integration of STEM because these
subjects are often taught in isolation
(Breiner, Johnson, Harkness, &
Kbehler, 2012).
This combination of barriers to learn-
ing can disenfranchise students from
science and other STEM fields. As a
result, only approximately 5 % of stu-
dents; with disabilities enter the STEM
workforce (Leddy, 2010).
Unfortunately, we do not yet have a
full understanding of how to best sup-
port:.(iverse learners in meaningfully
accessing STEM education. Many
STEM content teachers, for example,
still rely on didactic instruction, lab
experiences, and STEM texts in their
instruction (National Research Council
[NRC], 2011) and do not ensure that
these are accessible or appropriate for
conveying the often abstract concepts
within them. Other STEM content
teachers rely on more authentic learn-
ing opportunities that center on inquiry
learning and provide little explicit
instruction to support the students'
open inquiries.
The swing of the pendulum toward
inquiry, although certainly enhancing
student engagement, has resulted, in
many cases, in fewer opportunities for
students to meaningfully engage in text
and receive explicit instruction in the
concepts presented within those
inquiries. Special educators often face
the need to balance these curricular
expectations with the needs of students
with disabilities. Therefore, the pur-
pose of this article is to highlight evi-
dence-based strategies that promote lit-
eracy-embedded STEM learning that
special and general educators can
implement in teaching students with
We focus specically on literacy-
embedded STEM instruction for two
reasons. First, as stated previously,
many students struggle in STEM
because of difficulty in accessing the
language of STEM. Second, a growing
body of literature connects language
and disciplinary discourse with STEM
learning. Simply stated, students'
STEM experiences facilitate language
growth, which, in turn, enhances their
understanding of STEM (Yore, Pimm, &
Tuan, 2007). A cyclical relationship
exists between STEM literacy and
STEM learning.
What Is STEM Education?
The concept of STEM education trans-
lates to more than the subjects that
make up the acronym (science, tech-
nology, engineering, mathematics).
Researchers often refer to STEM in the
context of K-12 interdisciplinary teach-
ing. STEM education, in the larger
view, is an approach to learning that
emphasizes student-centered, collabo-
rative learning. The interdisciplinary
approach that STEM offers gives stu-
dents with disabilities and other strug-
gling learners the opportunity to make
sense of the world in a more authentic
way instead of learning about STEM
through isolated and de-contextualized
facts (Basham, Israel, & Maynard,
2010). It is these authentic experiences
that promote meaningful engagement
in real-world applications of learning.
A STEM curriculum and teaching
approach can create learning environ-
ments designed to engage all learners
in doing STEM (NRC, Committee on
Development, 2000).
The role of special educators within
this interdisciplinary approach to STEM
can vary widely, depending on the
grade level, content area focus, instruc-
tional setting, and the special educa-
tor's comfort with the STEM content.
Special educators may co-teach collab-
oratively with the content teacher, pro-
vide small group or individualized
explicit instruction, and engage stu-
dents in supplemental activities that
promote content understanding in the
context of meeting both individualized
goals and content standards.
through processes such as predicting,
inferring, and questioning. In addition,
because teachers usually present STEM
content through nonfiction texts
(including primary texts, reading text-
books, etc.), the ability to use reading
and writing to acquire new content
understanding is critical to students'
success in STEM learning. Integrating
reading instruction into STEM educa-
tion helps students with disabilities by
providing them with the tools needed
to meaningfully access text materials
that often pose significant barriers to
their learning.
Providing Explicit Instniction in
Content Literacy. To develop the con-
tent literacy of students with disabili-
ties and other struggling learners, we
must move beyond relying on students'
independent reading of instructional
texts for the dissemination of facts and
abstractions. Instead, we should con-
sider ways of integrating primary
authentic texts as a critical component
of learning. As students with disabili-
ties and other struggling learners expe-
rience these texts, they often require
explicit instruction in reading strategies
to access these texts meaningfully
(Faggella-Luby, Craner, Deshler, &
The role of special educators within this interdisciplinary
approach to STEM can vary widely, depending on the grade
level, content area focus, instructional setting, and the
special educator's comfort with the STEM content.
what Are the Connections
Among STEM, Reading, and
Content Literacy?
STEM education and reading instruc-
tion should be considered closely relat-
ed in supporting content-related litera-
cy, defined as the techniques that a
novice reader can use to make sense of
a disciplinary text (Shanahan &
Shanahan, 2012). Throughout K-12
teaching and learning, STEM and read-
ing both involve acts of inquiry
through processes to discover, find out,
and investigate (Cervetti, Pearson,
Barber, Hiebert, & Bravo, 2007).
Students who actively engage in both
reading and STEM continually think
Drew, 2012). Hence, when you consid-
er how to support students with dis-
abilities in STEM instruction, create
opportunities for them to engage in
authentic interdisciplinary STEM learn-
ing that includes reading primary texts
supported by explicit reading instruc-
STEM Content Literacy, the
Common Core State Standards, and
Students With Disabilities. The new
Common Core State Standards (CCSS)
in both English language arts (ELA)
and mathematics include strategies and
approaches for building student con-
tent literacy. The ELA standards specif-
ically address literacy in science and
other technical subjects. For reading of
nonfiction technical texts, the ELA
standards call for students to pull out
key ideas and details, to understand
the craft and structure of texts, and to
have an awareness of text complexity.
For writing, the ELA standards focus
heavily on writing arguments based on
discipline-specific texts. Even the math-
ematics standards frame mathematical
practices that develop students' content
literacy. Some examples include con-
structing viable arguments, modeling
with mathematics, and looking for and
making use of structure.
A STEM education approach could
help to accomplish the vision of the
CCSS with their shared focus on deep
content knowledge and student learn-
ing practices. K-12 STEM education
could provide a curriculum that sup-
ports the development of core academ-
ic competencies of students with dis-
abilities and other struggling learners
through the integration of literacy,
technologies, and engineering with
mathematics and science (STEM with a
content literacy integration).
Teaching Practices Tiiat
Promote Literacy-Embedde!
Authentic STEM Learning
In this section, we offer recommenda-
tions that special and general educators
can use for creating literacy-embedded
STEM instruction that support stuc^ents
with disabilities. ?
Get to Kno>v Your Students m
No two students learn in exactly tbe
same way; are motivated by the s ^ e
activities; or struggle with the sanii
concepts, ideas, or tasks. When work-
ing with any group of learners, the
great variability among them quickly
becomes clear (Center for Applied.
Special Technology [CAST], 2012);,?
Therefore, the very first strategy
involves learning as much as possible
about your students including (a) their
interests, (b) what they find difficult or
scary about learning, and (c) what
strategies they are currently using.
Teachers can use several strategies to
assess students' interests, their views
on STEM careers, and the strategies
that they use to access difflcult infor-
mation. These include the following:
Encourage students to draw pictures
of STEM concepts and how these
concepts apply to their lives. For
example, 5th-grade students drew
pictures of the work of engineers in
which the teachers learned that
most students had numerous mis-
conceptions. Almost half of the stu-
dents equated engineers with
mechanics and only 10% drew pic-
tures of women.
Go-construct graphic organizers,
such as a KWL (What do I know,
what do I want to know, and, later,
what I have learned about the
topic). The "W" provides a great
deal of information about areas of
interest to your students. This strat-
egy allows you to learn what your
students already know, flnd out
what information they would like to
learn, and provide a strategy for
helping them document new infor-
mation as they learn it.
Gonduct individual meetings with
your students to learn whether they
have concerns about upcoming
STEM instruction and what strate-
gies they have tried (successfully or
unsuccessfully) to meet challenging
learning situations. Often, students
will be more comfortable sharing
personal fears confldentially rather
than in whole-group instruction.
Explicitly Teach and Embed
Reading Strategies Into STEM
When engaging in STEM-speciflc texts,
general educators often assume that
students can read the assigned materi-
als without reflecting on whether the
students have the necessary skills and
strategies to effectively comprehend the
text. This is especially true as students
transition into secondary education.
High school STEM teachers often think
that they do not have the time or
expertise to "teach reading." Without
explicit instruction to engage students
in the active reading of texts, many
struggling learners and students with
disabilities may not be able to access
vocabulary, text structures, and rele-
vant background knowledge to support
text comprehension and the construc-
tion of new knowledge (Faggella-Luby
et al., 2012). As a special educator, you
may often need to focus on supporting
your students' reading comprehension
as part of active engagement in STEM
literacy. One way that you can do so is
by applying the literacy framework of
before, during, and after (BDF) for
each component of literacy. We recom-
mend several strategies that include
notions of BDF.
Before Reading. Before reading
STEM texts, it is important to help stu-
dents recall what they already know
and frontload important vocabulary
and concepts vital to comprehension.
Preteach essential new vocabulary.
Vocabulary targeted for frontloading
should be carefully selected. The
goal of frontloaded vocabulary
instruction is to provide essential
meanings to concepts that hinder
text comprehension. Frontloaded
vocabulary should include explicit
deflnitions in student-friendly lan-
guage, deflning characteristics of the
concept, and examples and non-
examples. For example, when Mr.
Henry taught about planets he
taught the students the vocabulary
such as orbit, asteroid, and rotation
and recorded these words on the
"Science Words, Everyday Words"
Survey the text prior to reading.
Students should learn to examine
text features such as titles, head-
ings, pictures, and captions, and
then make predictions about what
they expect to learn from the read-
ing. Previewing text is known by
many names, and includes strate-
gies such as SQR3 (Robinson, 1970)
and THIEVES (Zwiers, 2010), which
represent acronyms to help students
remember the text survey steps.
Engage students in a quick write.
Another strategy to activate prior
knowledge is the quick write.
Students are asked to focus on the
topic for a few minutes by writing
down what they already know
about the topic. Quick writing activ-
ities also provide teachers with
information about their students'
background knowledge and miscon-
ceptions about STEM content.
During Reading. Encourage students
to self-monitor their comprehension of
new material, use fix-up strategies to
repair comprehension, and identify
new vocabulary words important to
comprehension during reading.
Vocabulary during reading. Stu-
dents should be taught how to pro-
ceed if they do not understand the
vocabulary. For example, if students
encounter an unfamiliar word, they
could use strategies such as using
text clues, referring to a classroom
word wall, using the glossary, and
seeking help to clarify critical
Text structure. One aspect that
makes STEM reading challenging Is
the use of multiple text structures to
convey ideas. For example, one part
of a chapter may describe the
sequence of mitosis, while another
part of a chapter might compare
and contrast mitosis with meiosis.
Alerting students to the multiple
ways authors organize texts for dif-
ferent purposes should be explicitly
taught to students. Zwiers (2010)
recommended teaching students to
identify different text structures by
locating key words that alert stu-
dents to the pattern. For example,
the words "similar to" suggest the
author is comparing two concepts.
Paraphrasing. During paraphrasing,
students are encouraged to restate
the main ideas and important
details in the readings in their own
words (Hagaman & Reid, 2008).
Putting ideas into their own words
facilitates making connections to
prior knowledge and experiences. It
may also help integrate newly
acquired knowledge with prior
knowledge, a challenge for many
learners, including those with dis-
After Reading. After reading, stu-
dents should integrate newly acquired
knowledge with existing knowledge.
Strategies for supporting students'
after-reading comprehension include
learning logs and graphic organizers, in
addition to vocabulary studies.
Vocabulary. Students might select
important concepts postreading to
complete a semantic features study.
For example, students might con-
struct a chart that organizes the
attributes of different kinds of
plants, showing where to find vari-
ous species for further analysis.
Learning logs. Students might be
encouraged to write in a learning
log, not unlike the kinds of writing
done by countless STEM profession-
als during project work. They might
jot down important wonderings or
new ideas generated from their
Graphic organizers. Both teachers
and students can use graphic
organizers to help students organize
their thoughts on important STEM
code them regarding in which mode
each task should be completed.
Integrate Instructional
Technologies Into STEM
Instructional technologies available in
most schools can support STEM con-
tent literacy in significant ways.
Whereas in the past, teachers relied on
text and labs to illustrate STEM con-
cepts, now teachers have a wealth of
digital resources, simulations, video
games, and probeware that can
enhance, clarify, and supplement STEM
learning in a manner that is engaging
and accessible to a wide range of
Simalaons. Simulations involve
digital models of situations that allow
learners to manipulate parameters as
well as observe and interact with repre-
sentations of processes that are other-
ing about physical phenomena.
These simulations can be accessed
Gizmos: These fee-based simula-
tions offer opportunities for inquiry
and exploration of a wide range of
mathematical and scientific con-
cepts. Teachers can search for simu-
lations both by finding their state
standards or the Common Core
State Standards and matching simu-
lations to the standards or by
searching simulation by specific
content search. These simulations
can be accessed at http://www
. explorelearning. com/.
Mobile Learning Applications.
With the increasing popularity of
mobile technologies such as the iPad
and Samsung Galaxy Tablet, there
has been a proliferation of mobile
Strategies for supporting students' after-reading
comprehension include learning logs and graphic
organizers, in addition to vocahulary studies.
Collaborative Reading Strategies. A
variety of collaborative reading strate-
gies support students with disabilities.
Two examples of collaborative reading
strategies include reciprocal teaching
and interactive reading guides.
Reciprocal teaching is a method that
includes predicting, clarifying, ques-
tioning, and comprehending texts in
collaborative groups (Palincsar &
Brown, 1984). Students are taught
how to manage the processes
involved. The importance of this
strategy for students with disabili-
ties, as well as struggling readers, is
that this strategy actively involves
each group member in engaging
with the text.
Interactive reading guides afford
students the opportunity to collabo-
rate meaningfully during the read-
ing of a content text (Wood, 2002).
Teachers prepare guides based on
the texts students will read and
wise invisible (NRC, 2011). Simulations
provide ways for students to engage in
STEM concepts virtually through simu-
lated experiments. There are some con-
cepts that are quite abstract and diffi-
cult to understand without "seeing"
how they work. Students may struggle
with concepts such as the differences
between series and parallel circuits and
how they can be used. By manipulat-
ing the components virtually through a
simulation, they will gain a stronger
foundational understanding of the dif-
ferences between simple, series, and
parallel circuits. As a special educator,
you can integrate these simulations
either into whole group instruction or
into individualized instruction to sup-
port students. Examples of simulations
PhET: These free, interactive simula-
tions have been studied at the
University of Colorado for both their
design and use with students learn-
learning applications that support
STEM learning. These apps provide a
broad range of learning experiences
including simulations, vocabulary sup-
ports, literacy connections, and games
that support STEM content learning.
The following are a few well-designed
iPad applications.
Frog Dissection provides a virtual
frog dissection that explores the
inner workings of a frog. This appli-
cation also provides extended con-
tent about frogs.
Journey to the Exoplanets allows
students to explore planets as they
pilot a space shuttle through space.
Coaster Physics allows students to
design and operate their own roller
coasters and see physics principles
in action.
Vernier Physics allows students to
capture video of their favorite activi-
ties and then see graphs of the
resulting trajectories, as well as the
velocities of the objects.
Teachers and students can use mobile
learning applications, like general sim-
ulations, in multiple settings to support
multiple purposes. These can be used
as a center in a classroom, for individ-
ualized instruction, or (with enough
mobile learning devices) in whole-
group instruction.
Build on Authentic
Learning Processes
Authentic learning processes in STEM
education expose real-life applications.
Thus, authentic learning engages learn-
ers in the construction of knowledge
through disciplined inquiry that has
value beyond the school (Newmann,
King, & Carmichael, 2007). Authentic
learning strategies, such as Inquiry and
problem- and project-based instruction,
are central strategies for teaching inte-
grated STEM content and processes.
Along with these strategies, teachers
are realizing that engineering design
can be a powerful tool for authentic
problem solving. Mehalik, Doppelt,
and Schuun (2008) suggested that
when attempting to teach within an
engineering design framework, you
should consider the following three
1. Students explore the topic by brain-
storming ideas about building a
functional artifact.
2. Students put aside their initial con-
structions and consider a standard
model developed by synthesizing
class ideas. Students conduct sys-
tematic tests (controlled experi-
ments) during this time.
3. Students go back to an open design
process in which they incorporate
ideas they have gained, or they can
develop a completely new design.
These strategies provide pathways
for students with disabilities and other
struggling learners to engage in and
learn about STEM in a flexible manner.
The following are suggestions for sup-
porting students with and without dis-
abilities within this instructional frame-
Create collaborative authentic learn-
ing environments that are meaning-
ful to your students. Teachers, stu-
dentsand STEM community part-
nerscan work together as active
learners to establish an authentic
learning approach to curriculum
and instruction. In this way, stu-
dents learn how to solve real-world
problems and apply their knowl-
edge in creative and innovative
ways; they thus create products, not
just take tests (Newmann et al.,
Integrate scientific inquiry with
engineering design processes.
Engineering design is increasingly
being viewed as a gateway to
authentic learning that can support
increased student understanding of
STEM concepts (Benenson, 2001;
Crismond, 2001; Kolodner et al.,
2003). The National Research
Council (NRC, National Academy of
Science, 2009) argues that scientific
inquiry and engineering design
processes can be mutually reinforc-
ing in classroom instruction. Both
focus on solving problems and
require creative thinking, communi-
cation, and collaboration. There is
strong emerging evidence that
through these instructional prac-
tices, we can increase diverse learn-
ers' achievement and increase their
interest in STEM.
Mousetrap vehicles, solar-powered
devices, rocketry, or the design of
structures such as bridges are
authentic means of introducing
STEM principles to students. Such
approaches stimulate interest and
increased learning in a growing
number of students, many who may
otherwise turn away from STEM
(see Table 1 for STEM resources).
Promote Collaborative Planning
and Teaching to Promote Literacy-
Supported Interdisciplinary
STEM Instruction
To truly promote STEM learning for
students with disabilities and other
struggling learners, there must be a
Table 1. Autbentic STEM Resources
Resource Name and Web Address General Information
National Science Digital Library (NSDL)
Buck Institute of Education (BIE)
Engineering is Elementary (EiE)
AccessSTEM provides resources to help make STEM classrooms
accessible to individuals with disabilities, and provides a place to
share promising practices.
The NSDL offers many teacher resources, including lessons, content
refreshers for teachers, and most importantly online (free) access to the
science (STEM) literacy maps developed by the American Association
for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
The BIE offers (free) tools and resources for developing project-based
learning units.
EiE is a kit-based engineering program for elementary schools developed
by the Boston Museum of Science. The site offers not only the option to
purchase materials, but offers numerous educator resources to support
the use of engineering as an instructional strategy.
STEMDefined is a fee-based site that has many already developed
project-based units. A free 14-day trial is available.
Note. STEM = Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
commitment to collaboration among
content-area teachers, special educa-
tors, and other teaching staff that sup-
port struggling learners. In fact, the
embedded reading strategies described
here are often best implemented within
a collaborative teaching environment.
Collaboration leads to the following
Better generalization of instructional
strategies across the content areas.
More effective communication
about students' needs.
Opportunities to develop and imple-
ment authentic, interdisciplinary
STEM opportunities.
When considering ways of promoting
collaborative planning and imple-
menting literacy-embedded STEM
instruction, consider the following
Communicate the benefits of inte-
grating reading into the STEM disci-
plines. Remember that integrating
comprehension and vocabulary
strategies have been found to
improve content area learning out-
comes (Williams, Stafford, Lauer,
Hall, & PoUini, 2009). The key is to
decide on a few strategies and teach
them explicitly.
Begin with coplanning one or two
authentic learning experiences that
integrate explicit reading and
inquiry and engineering design prin-
ciples opportunities. By starting
small, you give yourself opportuni-
ties to learn the instructional
processes without the pressure of
attempting to change your entire
teaching pedagogy.
Realize that collaborative relation-
ships take time to develop. Open
communication, coupled with prob-
lem solving, will support relation-
ship building among teachers in the
service of students' academic learn-
ing (Pugach, Johnson, Drame, &
Williamson, 2012).
Final Ilioughts
Although the integration of authentic
STEM learning and reading seems intu-
itive to some educators, in many class-
rooms, STEM and reading are viewed
as having separate instructional objec-
tives and benefits. In addition, STEM
content teachers may see their job as
providing content to students while
viewing the job of the special educator
as providing supplemental reading
instruction when necessary. This article
provides a rationale for integrating con-
tent with reading to support students
with and without disabilities, as well
as suggestions for integrating explicit
reading strategies into authentic STEM
Focusing either on inquiry or explic-
it instruction alone is shortsighted and
provides a limited view of what diverse
learners need to be successful in rigor-
ous STEM content. By integrating
exphcit instruction into authentic
STEM activities, students can have
opportunities to authentically engage
in STEM learning, access content in a
meaningful way, and have opportuni-
ties to improve their content-literacy
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Maya Israel (Illinois CEC), Assistant
Professor, Department of Special Education,
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Kathie Maynard (Ohio CEC), Chair of the
STEM Regional Collaborative, UC Fusion
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Pamela Williamson (North Carolina CEC),
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Address correspondence concerning this arti-
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TEACHING Exceptional Children, Vol. 45,
No. 4, pp. 18-25.
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