First Bell

Elementary education needs more STEM; seeking balance in literacy instruction.

Topics: Literacy, STEM, Curriculum and Instruction

Elementary Education Needs More Science, SREB Says

A brief published in May by the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) says that elementary-level teachers spend just a fraction of the classroom time on science that they dedicate to literacy and math instruction, giving students less time to develop thinking skills that can benefit them in multiple subjects and prepare them for career success.

The 2018 “National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education” found that while 99 percent of K–3 teachers reported teaching reading and math on all or most school days, only 17 percent said the same of science. On average, K–3 teachers spent an average of just 18 minutes per day on science, compared to 89 minutes on reading and 57 minutes on math.

This is despite widespread acknowledgment of the importance of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects to the workforce, SREB says. Job growth in STEM-heavy fields such as health care and the skilled trades will remain strong through at least 2030, according to McKinsey statistics.

Researchers have found that students who spend more time in science instruction tend to perform better on fourth-grade NAEP science assessments and other standardized tests. But few states have policies mandating that elementary schools spend a specific amount of time on science instruction, unlike literacy instruction policies.

SREB agrees that developing reading and math skills in elementary school is critical to future success. But reading, math, and science “don’t have to compete for classroom time to the extent that they currently do, especially later in elementary school,” the brief says, and science can actually support literacy and math instruction.

Unfortunately, elementary teachers who responded to the 2018 survey said they felt less prepared to teach science than other subjects. While 77 percent of teachers reported feeling “very well prepared” to teach reading and language arts and 73 percent felt “very well prepared” to teach math, just 31 percent said the same for science.

Here’s how schools can prepare students for success in science in elementary school:

Ensure that science receives adequate time in the classroom. A National Science Teaching Association 2018 position statement recommends that science get the same attention as other core subjects. The statement encourages schools to aim for at least 60 minutes of science instruction and investigation per day—about three times the average number of minutes elementary teachers report spending on science now.

Encourage interdisciplinary instruction. Schools can increase the time spent on science without taking away from other subjects by helping teachers integrate science with topics such as literacy and math. Studies show that combining literacy practice with science learning in the upper elementary grades can result in greater gains in both subjects.

Equip elementary teachers to use inquiry-based, three-dimensional learning. Teachers need preparation to encourage children’s natural interest in science, including knowledge of content and effective teaching methods that help integrate reading, writing, math, and science skills. Teachers also need to be equipped to unify scientific practices, SREB says, “crosscutting” concepts and core ideas of scientific learning in instruction.

To read “Elementary Science: Equipping Students Through Inquiry and Integration” in full, visit

Seeking Balance in Literacy Instruction

Nearly three-quarters (72 percent) of K–2 and elementary special education teachers surveyed said their schools use a “balanced literacy” program to teach reading, according to a report from the Education Week Research Center; one-quarter (26 percent) use something else.

The approach is more common in large districts, with 80 percent of teachers in districts with enrollments of 2,500 to 9,999 citing a balanced literacy approach, as did 74 percent of those in districts with 10,000 or more students. Still, 68 percent of elementary teachers in districts with fewer than 2,500 students said their schools use balanced literacy.

While balanced literacy programs typically incorporate phonics instruction, some have been criticized for paying insufficient attention to this area. Most respondents (70 percent) said they place “a lot” of emphasis on phonics, dedicating 31 minutes per day to phonics, or 39 percent of the 80 minutes devoted to literacy instruction.

Visit to download the report.

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