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MOOC offers science teachers specialized lessons in reading instruction

December 8, 2015
By Theresa Johnston
Jonathan Osborne
Jonathan Osborne
The online course, Reading to Learn in Science, will be offered from January through April by Professor Jonathan Osborne.

According to a 2009 policy information report published by the Educational Testing Service, eighth grade students who said they engaged with their science textbooks almost every day, either in class or for homework, scored significantly higher on National Assessment of Educational Progress tests than peers who said they read textbooks never or hardly ever.

Yet for many students, textbooks on chemistry, biology and physics are not easy reads. The hefty volumes tend to be loaded with dense paragraphs, unfamiliar jargon and puzzling charts.  As Jonathan Osborne, Kamalachari Professor of Science Education at Stanford, notes, “Even children who learn to read quickly – devouring books or blogs, novels or news stories – often seem to struggle with scientific prose.”

Fortunately, Osborne says, there are some effective strategies that K-12 science teachers can use in their classrooms to help students get the most out of the difficult texts. The veteran science educator soon will be sharing some of those proven teaching methods, and the research behind them, in a free massive open online course, or MOOC, called Reading to Learn in Science.

Prior to joining the faculty of Stanford Graduate School of Education in 2009, Osborne served 23 years as a lecturer and professor of science education at King’s College, London, plus nine years as a physics teacher in inner city London schools. He says the topic of science literacy is particularly relevant now, when Common Core State Standards are pushing for more student engagement with nonfiction texts. While he thinks the new standards are a move in the right direction, “the problem is who is going to teach this kind of expository reading?” he says. “Science teachers often think, ‘That’s not my job,’ but I disagree with that point of view. Reading is an integral part of science.”

Teaching assistant and PhD student Quentin Sedlacek edits a webpage for Reading to Learn in Science. (Photo: Marc Franklin)

Osborne’s teaching assistant, Quentin Sedlacek – one of several Stanford doctoral students who helped to develop the online course last year, along with Michelle Friend, Brian Donovan, Catherine Lemmi and Ann-Kathrin Pehmer, a visiting scholar from Technische Universität München in Germany – says there is a huge demand and need for professional development opportunities in this area.

 “A lot of science teachers know that their students struggle with reading and comprehending science texts, and they are out there looking for specific strategies they can use to help their kids, as well as real research that supports the use of those strategies,´ ” Sedlacek notes. “We’re just helping people access those ideas and that research, in a form we hope will be useful for them.”

Running from Jan. 13 through April 13, 2016, Reading to Learn in Science should be of interest to a broad spectrum of science teachers, from the upper elementary grades all the way through high school, as well as home-schooling parents.  Participants in the 20-hour course will learn how to select useful science texts and recognize the unique challenges they pose. They’ll also learn strategies for supporting student comprehension — before, during and after reading — as well as tips for fostering productive discussion around scientific ideas.

In one classroom video, for example, a San Francisco teacher who’s trying to help her students understand photosynthesis uses an “anticipation guide” — a strategy in which the teacher uses true/false statements as discussion prompts, getting students to share their prior knowledge about the topic before they read. “All of the research shows that an important element of comprehension is the background knowledge that you bring to the reading task,” Osborne explains. When students realize that what they thought about a subject is different from what they read in the text, he says, “it promotes cognitive conflict, which is one mechanism of learning.”

In another short video clip, a teacher demonstrates the Frayer Model, a concept builder that is particularly useful for young students and English language learners. It consists of a piece of paper, or a chart, divided into four squares, with a new concept word in the middle, such as evaporation. Students draw a picture or give characteristics of the word in one square, write a sentence using it in another square, and give examples and non-examples of the term in the remaining squares.

Holly Gil, a veteran science/math teacher and educational consultant for the Santa Barbara, Calif., Unified School District, now working toward her master’s in Curriculum and Teacher Education at Stanford, was one of 3,361 people who enrolled in Reading to Learn in Science last year.  When she later offered to share what she learned with fellow science teachers at a summer professional development institute, there was overwhelming interest. “This may seem surprising, as we tend to think of elementary teachers as experts in literacy, “ she says, “but I would argue that the skills for reading in science are very different from the skills addressed in the reading instruction most teachers have received.”

Another participant in last year’s online course confessed to being “one of those high school teachers who believed that by the time my students got to a high school chemistry class, they already knew how to read, and if not, it was somebody’s else’s problem.” The Stanford course “dramatized to me that although they all knew how to read, they were not as skilled as they should have been in reading to learn, and that I was in a unique position to help that process.”

Osborne says the upcoming online course has been modified slightly since its debut last year, to incorporate the latest research on how to make MOOCs more effective. “In particular,” he says, “we are going to set up small groups so that participants can collaborate offline about what is happening.” In addition to pooling ideas and resources with professional colleagues from across the state and around the country, participants will have opportunities to apply what they are learning inside their own classrooms. For more information on registering for the free course, go to

The course was developed and produced with support from the office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning, and made available through Stanford Online. It is being offered on the NovoEd platform. 

Additional background on Reading to Learn in Science can be found at

Theresa Johnston is a writer who contributes frequently to Stanford University publications and websites.