The Impact of Literacy in Science

ALI Staff | Published  June 26, 2023

When thinking about your curriculum, certain words always seem to go together — problem with solving, math and principles, but what you don’t often hear paired together is science and literacy.

Aren’t they two different subjects? Yes, and no.

While you most often think of literacy as part of an English or reading curriculum, being able to read and write plays a massive role in science.

Literacy allows students to understand the steps in an experiment, explain their observations, and so much more.

Ensuring students are literate in scientific principles and science concepts can significantly improve their ability to understand what they’re learning.

It also allows them to make significant observations in their work. It gives them the tools they need to actively engage with science because they can understand it.


Astronaut reading on distant planet


What is science literacy?

Literacy in science really revolves around supporting and improving the existing reading, writing, and speaking skills your students have coming into the classroom.

This is accomplished within a framework of the science topics you’re teaching.

You must understand that, at different levels of literacy, students will read, interpret and process the information you’re sharing differently.

They may not fully understand a lab practicum if the words are too technical and haven’t been thoroughly reviewed.

They may not be able to adequately share their own feedback if they don’t have the correct vocabulary to do so.


Areas where scientific literacy is already happening

Whether you realize it or not, scientific literacy is already a part of your science class.

Knowing what activities are most impacted by both science and literacy can make it easier for you to incorporate science literacy strategies into your curriculum— whether you're in the lab, doing group work, or even project-based learning.

These preexisting areas include:

  • Thinking critically — when students read published work, watch a documentary, or analyze a graph or chart.
  • Analyzing accuracy — any time you challenge students to look at content in ways that check for potential bias or overall accuracy and quality.
  • Presenting findings — any time students are required to write or verbally present findings from either an experiment they do or research they’ve reviewed.


Why is scientific literacy important?

It’s no secret that there’s a ton of misinformation out there, but understanding how to discern fact from fiction is a learned skill.

Scientific literacy teaches that by creating a common vocabulary and proper way to read materials to glean valuable and accurate information.

This helps students extract opinions, conjectures, falsehoods, and more from their reading to form a better understanding of the truth and get to the facts, which is what science is at its core.


Science literacy strategies you can use

Although your students are already practicing scientific literacy simply by learning science, certain literacy strategies play perfectly into an existing science curriculum.


Teaching students how to read scientific texts

The process of reading scientific texts is not the same as reading a novel or a piece of nonfiction — this is technical reading, and you want to teach students what questions to ask to get through the material effectively.

This means focusing on accuracy, separating facts from conjecture, and thinking about cause and effect.

To make this task more accessible and more relatable, have students look at various sources, both in print and online, connected to a single topic. Then, ask them to compare their findings and rate each source's accuracy (in their opinion).


Including more opportunities to write and reflect

While many labs will have a writing component once the experiment is over, science literacy strategies often present more opportunities for students to write independently.

This is an excellent practice for students to learn how to express their opinions on paper and build confidence in their thoughts.

Ask students to write a paragraph before a lab focusing on what they think the outcomes will be and why.

You can also ask students to speculate on how two different science concepts relate before teaching that lesson.

Conversely, you can ask students to summarize what they’ve learned after you’ve covered a scientific principle so they can explain something new in their own words.


Creating discussion prompts that require research

Science literacy helps students make better-informed decisions, and a great way to practice getting to the best decision possible is through discussion.

Creating an activity where students are essentially debating the best answer to a scientific question you’ve posed requires them to research their response, keep reliable sources on hand, and cohesively assemble their thoughts.

They also have to think on the fly when another student comes out with ‘proof’ that takes the opposing side.

Using literacy in science in this way also helps students practice looking at potential sources and deciding whether they’re reliable and accurate or fall under the label of misinformation. 

It helps them understand why scientific papers and journals undergo peer review and are checked and re-checked before publication.


Emphasizing vocabulary

Studying science of any kind introduces students to a whole new vocabulary list.

From equipment names to scientific principles, scientific literacy also means understanding these words when they pop up.

To that end, just like with a vocab list in a language class, you need to take the time to teach students the definitions of the words they will encounter in your class.

Drawing pictures and diagrams that illustrate the words can help students.

But just like any language class, interacting with vocabulary in context is the best way to learn new words and understand how to use them correctly.


The impact of science literacy in the classroom and beyond

Perhaps the most significant impact of scientific literacy is that it helps develop the tools everyone needs to look at information and critically understand its value.

It teaches you to make crucial decisions based on fact, discerning between trusted sources. It’s the difference between being told medical information by your doctor versus looking at a list of possible illnesses you may have from a single-symptom search online.

When you’re scientifically literate, you can extract good evidence from all the bad, getting meaningful answers to all your questions.

This goes beyond experimenting in science class, holding value throughout a person’s life.

Do the science to become scientifically literate

However you promote scientific literacy in your own classroom, the only way to truly get students scientifically literate is to have them do science.

Hands-on, engaging activities and opportunities to write and present will only build up this essential skill, adding to a student’s toolbox of necessary skills to succeed in school and life.


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