A Case for Using STEM Anchor Texts to Promote Literacy

Gregory MacKinnon
School of Education, Acadia University, Wolfville, Nova Scotia, Canada


The author of this paper takes the position that anchor texts are a useful means of promoting literacy in developing countries. In particular, books in the STEM category are especially advantageous because of the context they develop and furthermore, the inherent integration of subjects. Feedback from teacher interns in both North American and Chinese teaching settings has identified factors that impact effectiveness of the anchor text approach. Exemplars of STEM books in two subsets of technology are provided.

Keywords: Anchor texts, STEM Curriculum, curriculum integration.

          STEM curriculum offers a unique opportunity to enhance children’s motivation to learn through the establishment of rich and engaging contexts. STEM curriculum is also arguably wellpositioned through these contexts, to promote language literacy gains especially in developing countries. The following discussion argues that STEM curriculum linked to the use of anchor texts has the potential to enhance vocabulary, communicative expression and even second language learning.

          A STEM text may be defined as a book in the curricular area of at least several of the component fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Further, the book may act as a foundation for investigating curriculum outcomes whilst developing literacy through scaffolded discussions. In this way the book acts as an anchor with multifaceted purposes of advancing not just core STEM concepts, but also more global 21st century outcomes of effective communication and critical thinking (www.P21.org).

Literacy Development: An Ongoing Concern

          The worldwide community monitors student literacy and numeracy in countries through the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) using the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results as one measure. The distribution of success on this assessment (PISA, 2019) spans several contexts, but it is clear that developing countries with fewer resources and evolving educational systems still face challenges.

          When one drills down into unique systems and contexts, there is strong evidence that the nature of classroom teaching and learning has significant impact on literacy. Take for instance a recent study of countries in the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) reported by the World Bank (2018):

A key component of educational achievement is the quality of teaching. The
OECS still struggles to attract and retain qualified teachers, especially at a
higher level of education. While 76 percent of primary school teachers are
trained, the share of trained secondary school teachers in the OECS is only
57 percent, and less than 45 percent in Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica,
and Grenada. A study using the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS)
shows that the weakest area in every country was instructional support, which
includes skills such as the use of instructional discussions, activities to promote
students’ higher-order thinking skills, and the use of feedback to extend and
expand learning; across OECS countries these scores were around 3, the bottom
of “mid-range.” This suggests that pedagogical skills, which are closely linked to
learning outcomes, are the area where teachers need most professional
development and support. (World Bank, 2018, pp 61-62)

Note: 63 Trained observers used CLASS to assess 134 teachers in Grenada, 93 in St. Lucia, 107
in St. Vincent and 95 in Dominica in 2017.

          In these countries, using a standardized instrument Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS https://teachstone.com/class/), it has been established that the lack of substantive child-centred discussions and activities has seriously impacted children’s language literacy levels. The full report suggests that students, as passive learners, don’t have opportunities to learn new vocabulary or extend their usage through conversation with the
teacher or their peers. It also suggests that language development is slowed by the lack of
interactive problem-based activities that typically enhance language through cooperative
learning modes (Johnson & Johnson, 2002). Herein lies an opportunity for STEM curriculum to
play a role in promoting literacy.

Why is STEM Well Suited to Respond?

          When one considers the evolution of STEM curriculum from such initiatives as the Science-Technology-Society (STS) curriculum in the 1990s (Cutcliffe, 1990), it is clear that integrated curriculum does an excellent job of creating context for learning (Drake & Reid, 2018). The constructivist teaching and learning model of Driver and Oldham (1986) expressly points to Setting the Stage. In their model (paraphrased below in Figure 1) this is more than setting a mood, they mean to set the cognitive stage that Piaget followers would recommend causes disequilibrium. Introducing interesting and authentic contexts for learning necessarily invokes rich discussions, often within a problem-based setting. Posner et al. (1982) suggest that these central questions are critical to promoting accommodation of new knowledge and therefore conceptual change. It is therefore arguable that integrated an curriculum such as STEM investigations have a pivotal role in creating settings that invoke significant discourse, hence the connection to literacy and language acquisition. The Driver and Oldham (1986) model further promotes discussions by eliciting students’ prior knowledge, scaffolding student investigations, consensus building about learning outcomes, and finally application of learning, the so-called transfer of knowledge to novel contexts. STEM activities coupled with constructivist approaches have shown great promise in promoting conceptual change and overall language literacy (Jorgenson et al., 2014; Portsmore & Milto, 2018; Milto et al., 2020).

Figure 1

A Constructivist Model for Teaching and Learning
(reconstituted/paraphrased from the work of Driver and Oldham, 1986)

Defining our Terms and Posing an Example of Integrated Curriculum

          In the context of the ensuing discussion, it is worthwhile defining terms because it provides introspection into how a book in its contents may fit as a foundational STEM text. Science is a way of knowing; how do we find out about the natural world around us? Technology is a way of adapting; how do we enhance the human condition through problem
solving? Engineering is seen as the artifacts of our systematic problem solving and Mathematics as describing our world using numbers. Recognizing the complex synergies within STEM resources, the educator can capitalize on opportunities for extended discussions (literacy development) in the classroom. This is not only important for first (native) language English classrooms but consider that new terminology for second language leaners is only reasonably internalised through usage. STEM topics naturally provide enhanced discussion opportunities by their inherent nature. The examples that follow should demonstrate the unique opportunity for classroom discourse that STEM offers.

          An example of an integrated study (MacKinnon & Yetman, 2001) involved children in learning about the use of Acadian dike systems in North America to reclaim land from the ocean for farming. The technology of the dike “aboiteau” (Eng.: “sluice”) originated in the Netherlands and found its way to Canada via ancestral connections to northern France (http://www.girouard.org/cgi-bin/page.pl?file=dikes&n=9). In this classroom activity, students learned about the science of the tides, the ingenuity, problem-solving, and work ethic of the Acadian builders and the construction/engineering of the aboiteau system. The dikes allowed the settlers to plant specialized grain and therefore sustain their livestock through the harsh winters. As such it solved a human problem. Also inherent in the study were mathematics of the tides, history of the peoples, language arts around writing about Acadian lifestyle, and the creative arts of building a mathematically scaled dike model. This example demonstrates the richness of context that comes from STEM learning.

The Anchor Text Approach Blended with Integrated Curriculum

          The notion of an anchor text builds on several foundations. The text, such as a children’s book, could be undertaken as a read aloud about a topic of interest. A read aloud is a standard classroom approach where children gather and listen as the teacher reads and displays a book. There are also many documented examples of self-paced reading of stories that act as an anchor (Butzow & Butzow, 2000). The storybook acts as an anchor, because much of the learning will be centred around the book. A children’s book may contain a story to set the stage, perhaps posing an interesting question. The book will invariably contain new vocabulary, which can be accentuated through pauses in the reading to reinforce spelling and pronunciation (Buchholz et al., 2021). New words can be highlighted further by contextualization in related sentences. The book may contain new concepts that would have the teacher pause and invoke discussion between students themselves (e.g., think-pair-share; see: https://www.readingrockets.org/strategies/think-pair-share) and/or Socratic exchanges with the teacher. Teachers may choose to do a half read where they (a) pause to allow students to take up a challenge such as construction, writing or research activity or (b) pose a question such as, “What do you think will happen next in the story?”

          An example of a popular anchor storybook in science and technology is The Salamander Room by Anne Mazer (See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=78agcNVQxWQ). Typically, teachers use this as an anchor to look at ideas of food chains, habitats, ecosystems, care of pets, and the environment. Ideas of clear-cutting and overuse of technology are natural extensions of the book. Jackson et al. (2021) have recently provided examples of using books to teach engineering-based thinking. Noted pedagogical strategies include (a) choosing a biographical story about an engineer and (b) a trade book that poses a problem. They argue that such stories invoke child-centred activities and scaffolded discussion.

Technology as a Component of STEM; How is it Taken up in Elementary Grades?

          Ortega and Ortega (1995) have suggested that technology studies in elementary school fall into two categories. It is useful to consider these designations as we can apply anchor texts to STEM learning quite systematically:

(a) Technology Learning Experiences are awareness activities that provide students with a knowledge and understanding of the technologies in the world around them, e.g., stories of the development and context of technological advances, observing construction of buildings and bridges (shapes, structures, materials), transportation modes, mass production facilities, energy, and power machines.

(b) Technology Design Problems are activities that allow students to explore materials, engage in systematic planning, develop hands-on process skills, and build and test prototype problem solutions, e.g., stories of design (The 3 Pigs), Plasticine® structures, paper towers, stick bridges, balloon powered vehicles, Lego® blocks, gears and pulley systems, and computer tools for design and construction.

          An example of an anchor text for category (a) above would be the story of Elijah McCoy (author Wendy Towle), a little-known black inventor who made significant contributions despite the racial stereotypes that hampered his progress. (See: https://youtu.be/OGWfzs2cRYA ). An example of an anchor text for category (b) above would be the story entitled Galimoto. (author Karen Lynn William). Here a young boy wants to design a truck (Galimoto) and must problem solve to gather parts and build his model. This story could easily serve as a precursor to studying the design loop in engineering (See: https://www.teachengineering.org/activities/view/cub_creative_activity1) and challenging children with simple prototyping exercises (See read aloud: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lSD4vFozwXU).

          A third example invokes a study of snowflakes. The science of ice involves hexagonal formation of water molecules, which necessarily determines the appearance of snowflakes. The book entitled Snowflakes (Libbrecht, 2008) has pictures of snowflakes captured using digital technology. The mathematics of snowflake symmetry invokes rich discussion of why and how they are formed. The children use digital microscopes and chilled slides to capture snowflakes as they fall and create their own digital compendium with potential portfolio tools as Word® or PowerPoint®. The book includes clear connections to science, technology and mathematics but also promotes literacies through rich discussions. The segue to a STEM activity of creating their own library is an added benefit that serves the notion of constructivist child-centred learning.

          The STEM books in Table 1 each indicate a read aloud site and category of technology activity for elementary grades. These, amongst others, are being promoted in national curriculum revision currently being undertaken in Guyana and St. Kitts and Nevis.

Table 1

Electronic STEM Books

Feedback on Using the Strategy in Real Classrooms

          In our teacher education program, we routinely ask teacher interns to use read-aloud approaches or alternatively, to create their own digital read alouds to upload to YouTube®. Further we ask them to prepare accompanying lesson plans. The primary goal is to promote literacy by using the books as anchor texts for teaching in a highly integrated elementary school curriculum. In many cases students have used the hard copy book in their practicum classes but
appreciate having the electronic copy as backup. Informal feedback over three years, from a population of 120 teacher interns suggested the following important features of the anchor text approach:

a) The chosen book needn’t directly deal with any one particular curriculum outcome but instead a blended situated around a real-world question.

b) STEM books are useful because they integrate multiple subject outcomes.

c) It was helpful to make word and concept lists to accompany the book so as to add structure.

d) Sometimes a concept map was useful to clearly articulate how the book helped relate book ideas.

e) Half-read strategies were useful when integrating hands-on activities with the book. Children liked to come back to the book after they had time to investigate the ideas on their own.

Quoting one teacher on the integrated nature of STEM anchor texts, “I find it easy to create discussions out of STEM books because they cover several content areas but also introduce many new concepts; science isn’t my strength, but I love books.” Another teacher suggested that “STEM topics by nature already have inter-related ideas and strong context; this motivates children to participate in discussions.” Many young elementary teachers are drawn to Language
Arts. From our informal feedback, the use of integrated STEM books seems to make it easier for teachers to see connections with literacy particularly if they have fears about teaching science and mathematics (Bursal & Paznokas, 2006).

Teaching Settings Involving English as a Second Language (ESL)

          In ESL classrooms, reading comprehension is routinely approached by using storybooks as learning anchors. The pedagogy typically involves teacher scaffolding coupled with formative assessment tools, modeling of scanning text and skimming the book, providing context clues, and summarizing with children the story development and plot (Sahlan & Cook, 2021). Choosing engaging texts is crucial and STEM-oriented stories have great potential to hold children’s interest as they negotiate concept development and language learning in tandem. The increased cognitive load (Schnotz & Kürschner, 2007) inherent in this combination of learning goals, makes it even more important to choose books with context that motivate learners. This is coupled with the fact that a well-chosen STEM anchor text can integrate subjects so that a single text can offer multiple opportunities for teachers to capitalize on diverse core subject outcomes.

          Each year since 2002, we have ferried upwards of 100 children’s books to build a library for interns to support their practicum teaching in China. In addition, our teacher interns have often tried to take their own English children’s books to China. Teaching supervision and concomitant interviews with teacher interns in China (MacKinnon, 2020) unearthed the following attitudes towards using English anchor texts:

“Children in China are very interested in English language read-aloud approaches.”

“I find it easy to create classroom discourse with anchor texts because the kids are
fascinated by English stories.”

“STEM books have built-in context for discussions; I introduce new words that we can
pronounce and review on the board, alone and in new sentences.”

“I like the STEM books that promote careers and the ones that deal with societal issues
like the environment; they are easy to get kids talking about (them) and practising new

          This speaks to another issue of access to good texts. In countries where teachers have little access to hard copy books and/or YouTube read alouds, the anchor text approach may pose challenges. Our solution for that problem has been to prepare our international-bound teacher interns to create their own storybooks using free software such as Bloom® (see: https://bloomlibrary.org/). The Bloom library contains contributed books in several languages, which allows for the anchor text approach to be applied in countries abroad. Since 2002 we have placed over 175 teachers for a four-month practicum in urban China. They have found the anchor text approach to be very productive in (a) motivating second language (L2) learners by creating contexts for learning, (b) seeing words and phrases situated in simple story sentence structures, (c) practicing the English language using the new vocabulary in classroom discourse,
(d) articulating pronunciation through multiple usage of new words in a story and practicing those new words, and (e) promoting active learning using the anchor text as a foundation.

Closing Thoughts

          In many elementary school jurisdictions worldwide, there is a predominant concern regarding literacy and numeracy of children. This has applied increasing pressure to reduce time spent on science and social studies curricula. Because technology, in the broadest sense, is about humans solving problems within social contexts, this trend also will necessarily diminish technology studies. The emergence of strong integrative STEM pedagogies has the potential to maximize the impact of these core subjects given the little instructional time teachers have at their disposal. An argument can be made that STEM anchor texts show great promise for situating learning in meaningful contexts that promote just-in-time learning, a process by which children access specific subject-based information as it relates to the problem they are trying to respond to. (Collins & Halverson, 2018).

Gregory MacKinnon is a Professor of Science and Technology Education at the School of Education, Acadia University, Nova Scotia, Canada. At Acadia, he is the Coordinator of Graduate Studies in Education and Chair of International
Practicum Programs for Teacher Education. Dr. MacKinnon’s research interests include constructivist science curriculum development, empowering teaching with technology, and international education development. He is currently further engaged as a consultant to MindBloom Educational Consulting overseeing Science pK-9 (12) curriculum development in Guyana and St. Kitts-Nevis.


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