Date of Award

May 2020

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Reading and Language Arts


Kathleen Hinchman


Literacy, Middle School, Professional Development, Sensemaking

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities


The purpose of this qualitative study was to describe a community of middle school science educators’ understandings of scientific sensemaking and literacy during their participation in professional development. Six teachers from Marksboro Middle School initiated and participated in a semester-long book study of Ambitious Science Teaching (Windschitl, Thompson, & Braaten, 2018). Three of these science teachers also participated in an interdisciplinary workshop series on sensemaking and literacy across the curriculum with three additional school colleagues from other disciplines conducted by a regional science professional developer and the author, a literacy education scholar. Two professional developers also participated in this study.

This study explored two research questions: (1) How were middle school teachers’ and professional development providers’ understandings of scientific sensemaking and literacy demonstrated during their participation in professional development? (2) How were these understandings mediated by the Ambitious Science Teaching book discussion activity system within which this work was situated?

Central to this investigation was use of Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT) as both a theoretical and analytical framework. CHAT provided a way to capture the complexity of teachers’ activity and how their understandings were mediated by systemic elements. These elements included social and historical factors of both individuals and educational institutions. This framework was also supported by the use of qualitative research methods and Actor-Network Theory (ANT).

Educators described their understanding of scientific sensemaking and literacy in similar ways. Descriptions of each included cognitive and social processes of grappling with information, however, what counted as information differed. Sensemaking was generally discussed as a process focused on a scientific phenomenon. Literacy was generally regarded as reading print-based and multi-modal texts. Throughout their work together, teachers also considered students’ equitable engagement in classroom discourse as a feature of sensemaking-oriented instruction.

Through their involvement in the activity system, educators demonstrated further understanding of sensemaking as a discrete activity as well as an extended process in which students engage in while learning through science instructional units called storylines. Through their collaborative activity, educators also demonstrated understanding of literacy as incorporating a variety of communicative modes, with student talk serving as the primary vehicle for students’ sensemaking. Literacy was also understood as a set of tools students’ draw upon when engaging in sensemaking. Teachers actions during book discussions demonstrated that considering how to support students’ literacy was a taken for granted component of planning for students’ sensemaking.

Teachers’ demonstrations of these understandings were mediated through the community’s use of the pedagogical suggestions provided by Ambitious Science Teaching (Windschitl, Thompson, and Braaten, 2018), consideration of performance expectations included in their state standards, and incorporation of resources beyond the focal text. It was bounded and challenged by institutional factors such as time constraints for instruction and the influence of statewide assessments.

The findings of this study build on previous research in science education and literacy education and support Hinchman and O’Brien’s (2019) call for literacy scholars to consider a hybridized view of disciplinary literacy. By considering scientific sensemaking and literacy as a dialectic, this study positions literacy as an inherent component of science teaching, rather than as a separate goal for educators to address. It has implications for literacy practitioners working in science spaces and for both science education and literacy education scholars researching sensemaking and disciplinary literacies.


Open Access