Introduction to literacy in Science

This section is focused on literacy in Science.

The information and resources address the reading and viewing, writing, and speaking and listening modes across the Science curriculum.

Scientific literacy and literacy in science

Literacy in Science is not the same as scientific literacy, but the two are interconnected.

Literacy in Science:

  • refers to the literate practices and strategies that enable individuals to understand, synthesise and communicate Science content knowledge
  • relates to the reading, viewing, writing, speaking and listening practices that students use to access, understand and communicate scientific knowledge.

Scientific literacy refers to:

  • an individual’s understanding of scientific concepts, phenomena and processes, and their ability to apply this knowledge to new and, at times, non-scientific situations (PISA, 2018).

For students to develop scientific literacy, they must first engage in literate practices to develop their understanding of scientific concepts. Put another way, improving students’ literacy in Science will help them to better develop their scientific understanding and scientific inquiry skills, which increases their scientific literacy.

The image displays a circular diagram. The outermost circle is titled scientific literacy, the middle circle includes Science Inquiry Skills and Science Understanding, and the innermost circle includes Literacy in Science which incorporates Reading and Viewing, Writing, and Speaking and Listening

Literate demands in science education

Language is fundamental to Science. Literacy strategies allow students to develop their understanding of science and to do and communicate science (Yore et al., 2003). Knowing how to read and write scientific texts and diagrams, for example, facilitates students’ understanding of complex scientific knowledge and processes.

Integral to the scientific method is the ability to:

  • ask questions
  • listen to explanations
  • present a conclusion.

Scientific language can be incredibly dense for some students, and in many cases every day and scientific uses of words or terms differ. For example,

  • "weight" and "mass" are used interchangeably in everyday situations, whereas in science they have completely different meanings
  • in science, the word “culture” refers to the process of growing living material, not the set of shared attitudes, beliefs and values of a group of people.

By using targeted literacy teaching strategies, teachers are able to support:

  • students to understand and correctly use new scientific vocabulary and terms
  • students’ ability to question, predict and explain.

These skills not only support students’ ability to navigate the scientific method, but also help students to clarify, extend and communicate their developing knowledge of scientific content.

Communication and writing in Science is highly specialised. Students must be able to read and write texts that are often dense, technical and abstract (Fang, 2005).

Scientific texts are also complex as they are comprised of multiple genres. Explicitly teaching students about the textual features of the various genres they will encounter in Science should help to improve students’ reading and writing. The common genres students will read and write in Science include:

  • procedural recounts
  • explanations
  • discussions.

Scientific texts are also typically multimodal, containing written language, diagrams and images. Teaching students how multimodal elements of a text work together to create meaning will help them to develop and communicate their scientific understanding.

In this video, Prof Jan van Driel and Dr Victoria Millar discuss the importance of teaching literacy in Science. They also outline the various genres students encounter in the Science classroom.

Teacher prompts

  • What are the range of texts students write in your classroom? How do you support your students to write these texts?
  • How do you support students to read in science? How do you ensure diverse learners are able to meet the complex demands of reading in science?
 

Literacy in the Victorian curriculum: Science

Literate practices are embedded in the aims of the Victorian Curriculum: Science. For example, the curriculum aims to make sure students develop an:

  • interest in science as a means of expanding their curiosity and willingness to explore, ask questions about and speculate on the changing world in which they live
  • ability to communicate scientific understanding and findings to a range of audiences, to justify ideas on the basis of evidence, and to evaluate and debate scientific arguments and claims (VCAA, n.d.).

The Science Inquiry Skills strand emphasises the subject-specific nature of language and literacy requirements as part of the scientific method. Within Science, students do reading and viewing, writing, and speaking and listening to:

  • identify and construct questions
  • propose predictions
  • plan experiments
  • record and analyse data
  • communicate information and ideas.

The literacy demands of Science go beyond the inquiry skills. Being able to read, view, write, speak about and listen to a variety of texts in Science allow students’ to access new scientific content, and as a result,develop their scientific knowledge.

References

  • Fang, Z. (2005). Scientific literacy: A systemic functional linguistics perspective. Science education, 89(2), 335-347.
  • PISA. (2018). Scientific literacy
  • VCAA. (n.d). Victorian Curriculum: Science.
  • Yore, L., Bisanz, G. L., & Hand, B. M. (2003). Examining the literacy component of science literacy: 25 years of language arts and science research. International journal of science education, 25(6), 689-725.