Christina Romero used to launch each of her fifth-grade science units with the time-honored assignment of asking her students to memorize a vocabulary list related to the topic at hand. Trouble was, the task often turned out to be an exercise in futility.

“The students could pass the vocabulary quiz on Friday,” says Romero, a teacher at Gonzales Community School in Santa Fe, New Mexico, “but when I used some of those same words in class on Monday, most students had no idea what I was talking about.”

Many of her students were English language learners who may have had extra challenges with the vocabulary and definitions compared to some of the native-English speakers. But Romero also realized that even the students who were able to master the relevant vocabulary were failing to acquire deep science knowledge.

What’s more, she admits that for many years even she “found science intimidating” and “knew it was not my strength.” Sure, Romero could teach her students how to memorize facts, restate definitions, or plug numbers into equations and come up with the correct answers to all kinds of science problems. “But I was teaching on a very superficial level.”

That all changed when Romero joined her school’s science committee and began participating in Making Sense of SCIENCE (MSS), a professional development program created by WestEd that weaves science and literacy together. Refined over more than a decade of testing and input from teachers, scientists, and literacy specialists, MSS offers an array of professional development services and materials for K–8 science teachers to deepen their scientific knowledge and improve their pedagogy to better support their students.

Romero, who has been teaching for 20 years, describes her MSS training as the “best professional development I’ve ever had.” She now focuses on having her students interact with science material — for example, during a recent unit on the microscope, students studied and used different kinds of lenses, generated a list of properties those lenses share, and developed their own definitions of “lens” — rather than just memorizing related vocabulary and facts.

“Once the students see how magnification works and which objects actually magnify,” says Romero, “they develop definitions based on their firsthand observation and experience — meaningful definitions that they’re much more likely to retain.”

She credits MSS with helping her make sense of “everything my science teachers in high school and college tried to teach me.” That, in turn, she says, has improved her students’ science understanding. “They’re internalizing concepts and making meaningful connections.”

A proven approach to improving student learning

Several research studies conducted over the last few years confirm what Romero has seen in her own classroom. In the most rigorous study, funded by the National Science Foundation, researchers at the University of California at Berkeley and Heller Research Associates conducted a two-year, cluster-randomized trial of MSS at eight sites across the United States. The study involved 49 school districts, more than 260 elementary school teachers, and nearly 7,000 students. Their conclusion: students whose teachers had participated in MSS training outperformed their peers by nearly 40 percent. What’s more, the findings showed that MSS was closing the achievement gap, because the gains were greatest for English language learners and low-performing students.

Kirsten Daehler, director of the Making Sense of SCIENCE project, estimates that last year several thousand teachers participated in MSS courses, which cover topics such as earth systems, force and motion, energy, genes and traits, and weather and climate. In each course, teachers work in small, collaborative groups to explore the science content and analyze real classroom dilemmas through case studies.

“It’s science learning for adults,” explains Daehler. “We have teachers engage in inquiry-based science investigations, and they talk and write together about what they’re doing.”

MSS courses encourage teachers to be metacognitive about how they are engaging in science learning, and what they do when they read, write, and talk about science ideas. Metacognition, or thinking about how one thinks, has proven to be a valuable tool in boosting both adult learning and student achievement. MSS asks teachers to reflect on and discuss, for example, how they gained understanding of complex concepts, or how they unraveled the faulty logic that led them to a common misunderstanding.

Promoting scientific language and literacy

In addition to its attention on metacognition, MSS differs from other science professional development in that it has a strong focus on literacy and scientific language, making it particularly beneficial for teachers of English language learners and students struggling with reading comprehension. Daehler notes that the literacy components embedded throughout MSS help science teachers learn to integrate language and literacy instruction into their classrooms in ways that help their students make sense of tricky science concepts.

“Science is a discipline that communicates with more than just words,” says Daehler. “Just open a science text or visit a science website and you’ll see pages packed with different forms of content, including images, symbols, equations, graphs, and other data representations. Being able to decode and comprehend these specialized text types is essential to understanding the meaning of science.”

Accordingly, MSS encourages teachers to reflect on their own approaches toward reading and communicating using the unique language of science. For instance, each MSS course includes Literacy Investigations, which help teachers understand and explain their processes for translating and making connections among scientific words, actions, images, and symbols.

The MSS course on Matter, for example, prompts teachers to explore the reading strategies they use for comprehending periodic tables and chemical equations. Such strategies might include chunking the data to analyze discrete parts (such as considering only the columns or rows of the periodic tables) or visualizing the overall data pattern of each layer (such as observing how atomic size generally increases as you move from top to bottom on periodic tables).

In addition, “Teachers who have taken MSS courses tend to give their students abundant opportunities to talk, read, and write about science,” says Daehler. “Teachers model in the classroom with their students what they experienced in MSS by having small groups of students collaborate on engaging activities — then prompting students to think through and discuss what’s happening, using scientific language.”

Such an approach differs drastically from a more typical model in which students are asked to follow instructions for a lab, watch a teacher demonstration, or read a chapter from the textbook and then answer written questions about the material. In many classrooms, says Daehler, even when students get to do experiments themselves, there isn’t time built into lessons for them to talk about what they’re learning. MSS, on the other hand, encourages those kinds of conversations in what Daehler calls a “low-risk” setting. “We promote an environment in which students have a voice to express their ideas, and classroom norms that don’t demand those ideas have to be ‘right.’”

Closing the achievement gap

Daehler is greatly encouraged by the research findings on MSS, which not only quantified impressive teacher and student gains in knowledge, but also confirmed that teachers maintain what they learn over time. Perhaps the most gratifying finding of all: evidence that non-native English speakers and low-performing students make the biggest gains.

“MSS promotes equity in the classroom,” says Daehler, “in part by providing a safe environment in which students who struggle with English can spend more time learning to talk together about science.”

“Another reason we think those students with the greatest need are showing the most progress is higher teacher expectations,” says Daehler. It’s common for participating teachers to believe their students can’t write or express themselves as well as the students whose work is highlighted in the MSS case studies. “Yet, after analyzing student work from their own classes, teachers find their students have more advanced science ideas than they originally gave them credit for,” says Daehler. “So teachers raise their expectations and increase the rigor of their instruction. In return, their students accomplish even more.”

These days, Romero — now a trained MSS facilitator — clearly loves and is at ease teaching science. She recalls laughing one day last fall when a student asked her, “Why aren’t you a scientist?” She readily concedes, “I didn’t start out like this,” and admits to having been so intimidated by college chemistry that she dropped out of an engineering program.

“Science is hard,” she says. “The concepts are abstract, esoteric. But thanks to Making Sense of SCIENCE, the most successful part of my students’ day is science.”