Literacy in Science and Scientific Literacy

Terry Talley, Ed.D.
Posted by on May 2, 2017  at 
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Recently I had a conversation with my younger brother, who is the residential and commercial plumbing inspector for one of the large counties in northwest Ohio, about the time it takes to read and understand the complex codes and regulations associated with the construction industry. He shared that in his preparation for the numerous certification and recertification examinations associated with his role, his ability to read closely for details, discuss the application of the code, and retain the nuances of what he read was developed much later in his career.

He stated that the codes and requirements for construction and technical jobs are far more difficult to comprehend and retain than any he was exposed to in all of his schooling. He felt his academic preparation fell short of what he actually needed, based on his teachers’ desire to make things engaging and hands-on in his science and technical courses. At the cost of learning how to engage in inquiry, problem solve, and learn the skills needed to read and understand authentic, complex text, the teacher’s priorities were neither realistic nor preparatory.

The introductory materials for the Common Core Standards for Literacy make this same point: the need for literacy skills to be taught in science and other core classes. And Scientific Literacy is one of the goals of a balanced education. College and career readiness is far more than passing scores on a standardized exam or a high GPA for the graduates: it is preparation for success in whatever the student selects to do after graduation. Whatever their choices, they will always need to informed themselves through an understanding of text of many kinds, including newspapers, the Internet, professional guides, instruction manuals, magazines, and so on.

My freshman year in college taught me that I was not prepared for my first course in my major—especially the reading required for Biology 101. This course was required of Bachelor of Science majors and was otherwise known as “Weed-out Biology” due to the high number of students who dropped the class altogether because they couldn’t pass the course. In my frustration to break down the college-level text, I complained to some of my friends in the same course and found we had the same problem. We decided to study as a group.

Unknowingly, we organized ourselves around the same strategies that the Common Core Literacy Standards suggest! As a team, we broke down each section, discussed it, figured out what the terms meant, took notes, synthesized the notes, and finally figured out ways they could be organized into our developing schema for recall. We then reconvened after labs, quizzes, and tests to figure out if we got it right. Not surprisingly, we missed some key points, but we made sure to add those to our notes. In the end, we all passed and decided we needed to do the same for Organic Chemistry. It was the only way we were going to survive!

When thinking about the importance of developing literacy skills in the science classroom, I recall making decisions about how to incorporate reading strategies, textbook dissection strategies, and authentic reading for the students in my own 7th grade science classroom. I struggled with textbooks that were written either well above or well below the reading level of the majority of my students and English Language Learners.

I searched for newspaper and magazine articles that were about the content. I subscribed to the monthly student science magazines. I scoured the local public library and the school library for leveled books that covered the content. With the limited resources available before student access to the Internet, I often found myself rewriting the textbook chapter numerous times, in the form of leveled notes, to be distributed during class as a reference for the student discussions that took place. Although that is no longer an issue with leveled readers and Internet access to a variety of resources, I wonder how often teachers preparing lessons for their science students consider literacy skills for inclusion.

As I observe in pre-K through 12th grade science classrooms, I am reminded of my brother’s comments and my own experiences, and I realize we were not unique. In the effort to keep the science highly engaging, provide hands-on experiences, and “get through the material,” many opportunities to add authentic and rigorous text are missed. Teachers are the ones doing the talking, preparing the notes, and giving the lectures, and students are not being asked to make it relevant or develop ways to make it part of their schema. Text is usually overlooked in an effort to get the students into the phenomenon, and teachers are usually the source of all the information.

Utilizing the 5E model of lesson design for inquiry is a viable and efficient way to incorporate all of the teachers’ and students’ needs for rich scientific experiences, as well as authentic and rigorous text!

After their interest is captured through an engaging “hook,” students are willing to share their experiences and connect to what is being introduced. It is during this time that teachers are able to assess how much prior or background knowledge students have, as well as the accuracy of that knowledge. Misconceptions are real and students are willing to share them if the “hook” discussion is open and inviting.

Providing an exploration activity that begins to generate all kinds of questions is a key to being “hands-on,” and promotes authentic engagement. The teacher, acting as a facilitator, is finding out what students are learning and wondering through questioning strategies and is scaffolding their experiences to allow students to discover new things about the phenomena. This is most important in this portion of the 5E.

During the Explain portion of the 5E lesson design, students share what they have learned, discovered, and wonder further about through discussion and discourse with the teacher and their classmates. Your task as the teacher is to create a “need to know more.” It is at this time that the introduction of text, in many forms and formats, is appropriate and of high value. By providing engaging, interesting, and authentic text that students are willing to wade through to find out more, you create an avenue to developing the literacy skills needed by your students. Help them with their struggles: find out their lexile level and match that with text; allow them to read with partners; provide scaffolded graphic organizers; provide individual copies of the text that they can interact with using highlighters or Post-it notes; encourage discussions; mark out sections of text that are not relevant to the focus of the lesson; or provide text in their native language if available.

Although there will be struggles and each of your students will make different levels of effort, they will know the success of being active learners who are learning skills that will benefit them for their lifetime. They will be using their skills to find the information they are interested in learning. In the future, students will use these skills when trying to make sense of the vast amounts of information that will be thrown their way through media and information highways we haven’t even experienced yet.

Although this takes time, when they have a need to read and to learn more about what they are interested in, you will have an engaged reader and learner. Students will be confident about discussing what they know and defending ideas that are based in scientific evidence. Although reading and literacy skills are not part of your teaching assignment as a STEM science teacher, it is your obligation to your students. Preparing your students for the life they choose after graduation is one of the things that defines you as a real teacher, not just someone who is earning a living by teaching school.

I would like to invite you to visit the NISE site and blog and look through our resources in Science and Scientific Literacy to learn how to develop literacy for the benefit of your students. There are several videos and resources that offer ideas you might want to try in order to promote literacy strategies for yourself and your students.