Chemical Reactions

Today I learned about "Chemical Reactions" in science, an interesting topic and one I was completely befuddled by. The terrible thing was, this always seems to happen; I learn about something interesting in science, think I understand it, and find that I can hardly answer questions on it, let alone explain the concepts. I find myself tripping over words like "exothermic" and "endothermic" while attempting to explain what they mean. So I wanted to think of a new way that I could understand the material better--and why I wasn't understanding it in the first place!

As an author and avid history buff, subjects like language arts and social studies have, in general, been fairly smooth rides for me. I'm able to read the information quickly, remember it, and put it to use. But the problem with speed-reading your science text is that you miss words like "exothermic" and "endothermic" or exactly what they mean. That's one thing I've told myself: read slower and more carefully. It helps me catch more of the important information--information that sometimes hides itself in nooks and crannies that my impatient eyes skip over.

Another thing that may sometimes trip me up is the abstractness of it all. Since I'm learning about Physical Science--which, as far as I can see, is the study of really tiny things (atoms and the like) and stuff that's everywhere (oxygen, anyone?)--which need to be represented by models or pictures or lengthy explanations. On the other hand, in a course like Earth or Life Science, you can point up to space or look at a leaf and see planets and photosynthesis for yourself. Who looks at table salt and says, "This is NaCl, an ionic compound of sodium and chloride?" Or "The atoms in that gas are zooming around pretty fast today." I can't see the atoms in that gas, people. I probably can't even see the gas.

But that's enough grousing about why I wasn't understanding the topic--what about actually solving the problem? One thing that helped was reading the text aloud. Instead of just scanning it (which I'm prone to do if I'm reading silently), reading aloud forced me to slow down a little, to think about the pronunciation of the word and what each sentence I read really meant. I summarized out loud better than I did in my head. My mom was on hand, so I explained the concept to her. Having someone to listen to you and bounce ideas off of can be very helpful. Another thing I did was pull out my Pulse smartpen and take notes while reading out loud (recording both the notes and the audio). It was very helpful for synthesizing information. However, as I listened to the recording as it played back, I was surprised by how much I stumbled over certain words. If you listen to one of my videos where I'm teaching kids about reading and writing, and compare it to my science recording, you'll notice the difference right away--when I'm talking about chemical reactions, I sound hesitant and unsure about some of the things I'm saying. Oh well, I thought. It's a start. It's a start which I hope will result in some long-term progress.

After finishing my recording and a review worksheet, I took the lesson assessment. And guess what? I must have understood my "Chemical Reactions" pretty well, because I got 100%.


  1. Hi Adora, I came across your blog after seeing you featured on the MSN website. I was surprised to see you living in Redmond WA too. I like this post you have written about science. I am a masters student at UW in Marine Science and I am also a Teaching Assistant at UW. Although I love science and to teach it, I know it can be highly confusing and frustrating. I like your suggestions on how to succeed in science, I'd also suggest trying hands on applications when you get a chance or think about how science affects your everyday life. Making those connections may help too. Good luck! Science can be really fun and amazing!

  2. As a fast reader, I remember discovering that I needed to slow down when I was reading material where the content was significantly new to me or challenging academically. So it is no surprise to me that you are a less fluent reader when you are unsure of the content of what you're reading. It's something I've been trying to teach my daughter (and my students) - that there are different styles of reading that are appropriate depending on what you're reading or what your goal is. I recently recorded my daughter reciting a poem and she was very surprised to hear that it was not as fluent as she thought it was - what she heard in her head was the way she wanted it to sound, and when she heard the recording she heard what we were hearing. You clearly have excellent self-awareness, and a good repertoire of techniques at your fingertips (including your smartpen), which explains your 100% score on the assessment :-)

  3. Dear Adora, it sounds like you've been reading about subjects arts and humanities for a long time, but perhaps not as long about science. The only way to get more comfortable with science is to, you guessed it, read more about it. :-) After a while, you'll be able to read science texts as quickly as any other ones.

    Also, here are some tips for reading about science. Your textbooks will certainly provide you with a basic amount of information, but that might not be enough for a curious person such as yourself, not to mention possible (or even probable) inaccuracies that slip into textbooks during the writing-by-committee process. The best way to undertand a new idea is to read about it from many different sources. Some of the best sources are popular science books written by practicing scientists. Such books have been written in large numbers since the 19th century, some even by the pioneering scientists of the times. I'm sure you will not have any trouble finding examples. Looking at the books written by various Nobel Prize winners is one way to start.

    Another thing to keep in mind is that, at its core, science is a quantitative subject. One of the best checks of your understanding is the ability to independently reproduce the numbers associated with the examples in the material you are reading, and perhaps even do the same with examples that you come up with yourself. However, that requires a certain degree of numeracy (on top of literacy), which you may not yet have, but which you can fortunately develop along the way.

    Finally, it is important to remember that science cannot be divorced from empirical observation and experimentation, which sometimes involves "getting your hands dirty". Reading about exothermic and endothermic reactions is one thing, but connecting that information with the warmth of a lit candle in your hand or with the cooling effect of perspiration on a hot day is another.

    Moreover, you are completely right to wonder about the origin of such seemingly abstract concepts as atoms and molecules. They are completely outside your everyday experience, yet science asserts the existence of these unintuitive entities. In fact, the history of how such concepts have become part of science is full of fascinatingly epic, deeply human, and serendipitously twisted stories of discovery. There are many ways to "see" atoms or molecules. One of the simplest is to simply look up into the blue sky. This blue light is sunlight reflected from individual molecules making up the atmosphere. Without molecules, the atmosphere would be transparent, making the sky black day and night.

    Best of luck learning about the many fascinating facets of science!

  4. I always love insights into the prodigy's learning process!
    Nice post, Adora. Thoughtful and insightful. I agree that reading out loud can really help. (Not, as you know, that I am any role model when it comes to science learning.)

  5. Ha ha! I used to think I was so lucky because I could speed read. Then I went to college to become an engineer and discovered the downside to speed reading--trouble with comprehension and retention! I, too, often have to resort to reading aloud to fully comprehend scientific texts.

    It was fun to read your post and think, "yeah, me too!" And I liked your term, impatient eyes. That's just how it feels!

  6. Rita Lie1:17 AM

    Dear Adora, I just read about you this morning in local newspaper in Jakarta so I googled you and now reading your blog, wow, you're such an inspiration, I found out recently that I need to read aloud in order to comprehend these loads of textbooks I have to study and it makes a big difference compared to reading it silently (I tend to speed read a lot). I'm 26, a medical student and freelance pilates instructor, it's very important for me to explain functional concepts of human body to my clients about posture alignment etc and then introduce them using imagery is also proven to be more effective. It's a start for me too, I enjoy so much your writing, you rocks!! :):):)


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