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Close Reading & Scientific Text: Patterns of Comparison

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An example of simulated data modeled for the CMS particle detector on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN. Here, following a collision of two protons, a Higgs boson is produced which decays into two jets of hadrons and two electrons. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Too often, images like this one are used in scientific text as decoration on the page with little explanation about their relationship to text. If this is a pattern you see in your textbook, draw attention to it, not away from it. Have students explain and analyze the image in relation to the print text. Hover or click on the image to read more about it.  (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

In reading Chris Lehmann’s blog post, #CloseReading Nonfiction (Why? and Oh!), I found validation for my own appreciation of nonfiction. Unlike many English teachers, I was invited to reading not by childhood novels or great young adult fiction, but through biographies and histories and their related geography, through science and nature studies–through nonfiction. I remember as a fifth grader all I wanted for Christmas was a microscope…and I got one. Although I love classic literature, I find more purpose to reading informational text (as it is coming to be known) and appreciate the gifted writers of this genre. However, even though the Common Core urges close reading across disciplines, the focus of close reading tends to remain on the texts of ELA and English classrooms, those disciplines that have been focusing of close reading since Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Poetics.

In my experience, the act of engaging young readers with informational or nonfiction text is no more challenging that engaging them with story or literature. For the younger audience, especially in contemporary texts, brightly colored images entice readers and fuel their questions about the mysteries of science, the secrets of history, and the inner-workings of technology. The step-by-step illustrated instructions for constructing complex Lego configurations capture my six-year old grandson’s attention and the results of construction provide immediate gratification. He can stay fully fixated on the text pages for hours!

But teaching intermediate and high schools readers the nuances of engaging with informational text, be they strugglers or not, challenges nearly all educators across the disciplines, ELA included. To engage with sophisticated and mature texts that lack visually stimulating and meaningful photographic imagery is a place mature readers need to reach, a challenge they must master. In supporting student readers to meet that challenge, we must raise their individual awareness of clues left by authors, clues left to satiate the curious mind’s search for meaning, the problem-solver’s quest for resolutions, the novice in bridging  the absence of knowledge with an understanding of thought.

The disconnection between informational text and student readers is in part due to years of dry textbooks that have ignored the importance of reader involvement in learning. In recent years, textbooks have polished their writing style to create a more easeful entrance for reader involvement. However, the approach may still assume a background knowledge and objective tone that combined, challenge the reader’s ability to connect with the text and therefore engage with the reading in a real-world or present way.  Allow me to provide two examples to illustrate my point–a high school chemistry textbook and a published article from Scientific American:

The introductory paragraphs from Fundamentals of Chemisty begin this way:

Matter can be described simply as the “stuff” that makes up all material things in the universe. Water, salt, sand, sugar, steel, the stars, and even the gases present in the air are all composed of matter. By definition, matter is anything that has mass and takes up space. In fact, chemistry is a science that deals with matter and the changes it undergoes.

Mass is the measure of the quantity of matter. Even air has mass, but you might not think about it unless you were walking against a strong wind. Mass is often confused with weight. Weight is the force of gravity acting on the mass of a particular object.

The strength of a planet’s gravity depends on its mass and size. For most of its history, the human race was restricted to the surface of the planet Earth, which exerts relatively constant gravitational force on a given object, so the terms mass and weight were generally used interchangeably. When the exploration of space began, however, the distinct differences between mass and weight became more apparent and easier to describe. The mass of an astronaut on the moon is the same as his or her mass on Earth. The amount of matter that makes up the astronaut does not change. The weight of the astronaut on the moon, however, is only one-sixth of his or her weight on Earth because the pull is one-sixth as great as the Earth’s attraction. Weight varies with gravity; mass does not. (2003, p. 12)

 

The multi-paragraph introduction of Gordon Kane’s “The Mysteries of Mass” begins this way:

Most people think they know what mass is, but they understand only part of the story. For instance, an elephant is clearly bulkier and weighs more than an ant. Even in the absence of gravity, the elephant would have greater mass–it would be harder to push and set in motion. Obviously the elephant is more massive because it is made of many more atoms than the ant is, but what determines the masses of the individual atoms? What about the elementary particles that make up the atoms–what determines their masses? Indeed, why do they even have mass? (2005, p. 33)

Granted, these examples are not discussions for the same purposes: Kane is setting the foundation to discuss an understanding of elementary particles while the textbook is establishing the reader’s grounding in the understanding of matter for the purpose of developing  a knowledge of chemistry. And although both presume a certain level of background knowledge about mass, the textbook begins with a classic definition structure then moves to connecting with the reader afterwhich it develops a comparison. Kane, on the other hand, jumps into a analogy. Although both use a similar approach–comparing the concept of mass as an abstract to the concrete physical world, e.g., the astronaut, the elephant, and the ant–which of the two introductions is more grounded in common understanding and therefore creating a more accessible image of mass? Much of scientific study is about a microscopic world, a world unseen by the naked eye. What better way to build scientific understanding of an unseen world than by generating concrete, familiar images in the reader’s mind? Though I offer here only two examples of scientific writing, review your science texts and see if you can identify the pattern of comparison emerging in scientific writing.

Most science teachers with whom I share a series of science texts leave the reading without identifying the pattern. The comparisons made within the texts are overlooked by teachers who possess such a clear understanding of the content that illustrative analogies are wasted. But the purpose of an analogy is to make a connection between the relationships of concepts, whether word analogies, pictorial analogies, or a combination.  The comparisons made in these texts are purposeful; the analogies are tools of the science writer to make concepts students find difficult more accessible. Well-meaning but content focused teachers may overlook pointing out to students of science the importance of comparisons, analogies, and illustrations. Indeed, I recently argued this point amidst a group of teachers representing various fields of science who told me that what I propose “sounds like English class” to them. “The teaching of analogies and figures of speech are not within the perimeters of science” they asserted.

Yet in reading Kane’s discussion of the Higgs field and frankly, in going through the chemistry textbook itself, I can identify repeated use of comparisons that as an English teacher I would label as simile, metaphor, analogy and the like. I’m not asking the science teachers necessarily label the types of comparisons, but I urge them and teachers within other disciplines to recognize comparisons made within their texts and explore the author’s purpose for comparison as it relates to the reader. This exploration will deepen the reader’s understanding of the disciplinary concept, in this case–the scientific concept.

In “The Mysteries of Mass,” Kane describes the uniqueness of the Higgs field by explaining first “Any system, including a universe, will tumble into its lowest energy state, like a ball bouncing down to the bottom of a valley” (2005, p.34) and continues by literally recognizing the metaphor and then extending it:

In terms of the valley metaphor, for ordinary fields the valley floor is at the location of zero field; for the Higgs, the valley has a hillock at its center (at zero field) and the lowest point of the valley forms a circle around the hillock [see box on preceding page]. The universe, like a ball, comes to rest somewhere on this circular trench, which corresponds to a nonzero value of the field. That is, in its natural, lowest energy state, the universe is permeated throughout by a nonzero Higgs field. (2005, p. 36)

In looking through the textbook at hand, every chapter provides many examples of the concepts and definitions for terms and some analogies between scientific processes invisible to the human eye and life processes apparent in life. However, authentic published texts work harder to make the content accessible to their readership and provide more analogies to help their readers envision the concepts, processes, and relationships of which they write. As educators, we should be aware of these differences and pair our content area texts (textbooks) with authentic published texts in order to make the learning more relevant and therefore, deeper (see my post: Six or Seven Text Pairings Implied by the Common Core State Standards).

Note the comparisons simplifying an abstractly complex theory.

Note the comparisons simplifying an abstractly complex theory. (Source: Scientific American, July 2005. p. 35) Posted here under Fair Use Guidelines.

In terms of images, the textbook has page after page of diagrams, scientific drawings, and chemical equations, and a few illustrative analogies that make real world connections. The textbook images tend to be more serious unlike the pictorial analogy accompanying “Mysteries of Mass” shown at the right. The textbook offered numerous images demonstrating analogies, one explicitly labeled “analogy” related the counting of coins to the weighing of specific mass and another (both interestingly black & white) relating the motion of an electric fan to “electrons in the first energy level of an atom moving above the nucleus” [which would appear] “a fuzzy, blurred spherically shaped cloud of negative charge” (p. 137).

Both texts make use of images that represent language, terms, and processes described/discussed in the text, but textbooks appear to fill white space with colorful images that do little to advance real scientific thinking: i.e., a picture of a colorful balloon cluster with the caption “Helium gas is used to fill party balloons” (p. 16); or an image of a swimmer in a lap pool with the caption “How many drops of water in a swimming pool is 1ppb?’ (p. 59); or images of salt trucks with the caption, “Spreading NaCl and CaCl2 on icy streets and roads lowers the freezing point of water below 0 degrees Celsius, so ice and snow melt” (p. 425). Authentic text, because of the page limitations for publications may be less guilty of this practice, using its space more frugally. The Kane article uses a combination of scientific figures and drawings or images to depict and/or imply analogous relationships.

Though I didn’t intend to critique textbooks or set out to compare and contrast authentic published scientific text with conventional textbooks, as I look through Kane’s exemplary text and a number of high school science textbooks, I make can make the same generalizations. I enjoy reading about science and I have learned a great deal about science both through academic texts and through authentic texts published for public sale. But I enjoy the latter. I find scientific texts published to generate readership are written with a more engaging style, illustrated with images connecting theory and reality, and working within the structures of language to help the reader truly understand the concept even after they have finished the reading.

But rather than preach on, I urge you to grab one of your science textbooks and conduct your own analysis. How are the significant concepts of the field introduced to readers (often content novices)? How are the complexities of scientific processes explained and illustrated? How are the writers of textbooks structuring their writing to make it accessible to adolescents? And then ask your science teachers or yourself if you are the science teacher, how are they heightening the reading awareness of young scientists to the examples, definitions, analogies, and metaphors that real scientists use in their writing.

References

Burns, R. A. (2003). Fundamentals of Chemistry, Fourth Edition. Upper Saddle, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Kane, G. (2005). Mysteries of Mass. Scientific American, July, 2005. p. 32-40.

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This blog contains copyrighted material the use of which is intended for educational purposes and has been authorized under Fair Use by the copyright owner: “Materials received from the Scientific American Archive Online may only be displayed and printed for your personal, non-commercial use following “fair use” guidelines.” For more information on “fair use” click here.

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