Three Myths About Scientific Literacy

While some teachers may balk at devoting “science time” to incorporate literacy skills, developing students’ scientific literacy is actually a vital part of a three-dimensional science education. In fact, it could be argued that turning our students into scientifically literate human beings is really what “science class” is all about.

Understanding Scientific Literacy

You might not know, but before I landed in a science classroom, I actually taught a year of middle school English/Language Arts.  You can probably imagine what that kind of curriculum looks like — teaching things like grammar, all sorts of writing, literature, and understanding informational texts.  Literacy (as it was conveyed to me by the curriculum I was assigned to teach) very much referred to written words. 

When I got into the science classroom, my understanding of literacy evolved.  While literacy certainly refers to written words, literacy is also more than that. At its roots, literacy is about communication.

So while I know there is oftentimes pushback from science teachers when it comes to “teaching literacy” in science class (and it’s ok if you feel it right now!), I hope by the end of this post you walk away realizing: literacy is VERY MUCH a part of science.

In fact, scientific literacy is science.

Scientists communicate.  Our students, our young scientists, likewise need to learn how to communicate in science — communicate their ideas and understand others’ ideas. The give and take.

And it’s one hundred percent possible to do that without sacrificing time and energy devoted to your “actual science content.” (I say this in quotes, because you will find that literacy is very much a part of and truly supports your “actual science content.”)

So the first step to achieving this lofty goal of incorporating literacy is to dispel a few myths about scientific literacy. Then, we can replace our existing understandings with a better definition that supports three-dimensional science learning in our science classrooms.

Myth One: Literacy is just spelling, grammar, and mechanics.  

This may be an unpopular opinion among some science teachers. This is probably an unpopular opinion among English/Language Arts teachers… but I’m going to tell you what I tell my students.

“I don’t care about spelling, punctuation, grammar, whatever. If I can understand what you’re trying to communicate, I’m happy.”

Here’s the thing: spelling, grammar, and mechanics certainly are key to effective communication. Who hasn’t seen the “Let’s eat grandma!” example. I’m sure grandmas everywhere appreciate the effective use of a comma in this situation. But there’s also a degree of — like come on, I know you’re not really eating grandma here, and I don’t need a comma to understand that.

The reality is, when you get your students writing in science class, they’re going to make mistakes.  In fact, the writing is probably going to be trash. So many students are operating with below grade-level writing skills in our schools today, and the reality is, you don’t have time to fix that. But that isn’t a reason to avoid writing. If anything, it just shows that we need to incorporate writing (and reading!) more often.

So what does that look like?

First, it looks like focusing on the ideas.

By communicating to my students I don’t care about the mechanics, my goal is to free their brains from the shackles of worrying about grammar in order to open avenues of communication about the ideas. As long as I get what they’re trying to say, I’m not going to fault them on the grammar stuff.

That said, we can always “sprinkle in” strategies to improve those “mechanics.”

For example, my students like to use the word it a lot. “It changed. It increased. This happened and then it went down.” Umm, what is it? Because this vague pronoun scrambles up the meaning of their work, we’ve taken some class time to revise our writing and remove some of the “its” from our responses.

Other times, I’ve devoted class time to turning sentence-fragment-responses into complete ideas and cohesive paragraphs. While I’m not asking students to identify subjects and verbs, I am asking students to consider whether their “sentences” can stand alone? I’m asking them to reflect on, what ideas or words seem to be missing?

It’s “sprinkles” for sure — I’m not dramatically improving my students’ writing in these quick moments. But I do truly believe that over time, these moments add up.

On a somewhat tangential note, in education we seem to believe that students should participate in a lesson and walk away with complete understanding and mastered skills. However, I don’t think that’s how learning really works. I would argue – each time we engage our students in a skill or they explore a concept or idea, their brains grow a little bit more. Over time, that growth adds up. So instead of big elaborate lessons for every skill or concept, maybe “sprinkling it in” can be a better – and more manageable – approach.

Anyway, when we’re talking about literacy instruction in science, it’s my humble opinion that we stop letting grammar and mechanics hold us back. Let’s focus on the ideas. Let’s get our kids reading and writing. Let’s incorporate what we can… and let the rest go. Believing we have to do it all (i.e. all the mechanics and grammar and so on) if we’re going to do anything is just letting the “perfect become the enemy of the good.”

Myth Two: Literacy is ONLY  writing.

While I totally started off with writing in the last point, it’s important to remember — literacy is more than just written text. Across the disciplines, we have digital literacy, media literacy, visual literacy, data literacy… (and a whole list more, actually)!

The “written word” will be a part of your literacy instruction, but it won’t be the only part. Just like writing is just one tiny part of argumentation (see here!), writing is just one tiny part of scientific literacy! Developing scientifically literate students is about supporting the acquisition of a number of skills, not just communication via written text.

Check out my favorite data literacy tools and websites below!

Data Analysis Strategy [Free Download]

Data Nuggets

New York Times: What’s Going On In This Graph?

Myth Three: Developing scientific literacy takes time away from teaching content.

Nope. Literacy is a vehicle through which your students can explore, discover, and develop their content understandings.  Developing their literacy skills provides students with a way to practice and refine the scientific knowledge they’ve learned.  Teaching literacy simultaneously deepens science understanding and builds science practices!  It doesn’t take away from them.

Not convinced? According to the National Academies, scientific literacy is:

  • “the knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity”
  • the skills needed to “ask, find, or determine answers to questions derived from curiosity about everyday experiences”
  • “the ability to describe, explain, and predict natural phenomena”
  • the capacity to “identify scientific issues underlying national and local decisions and express positions that are scientifically and technologically informed”
  • the skills “to evaluate the quality of scientific information on the basis of its source and the methods”
  • and lastly, the ability “to pose and evaluate arguments based on evidence and to apply conclusions from such arguments appropriately”

I know that was a lot of words, but you can clearly see in that definition that there are so many science practices that are fundamental to this definition of scientific literacy. Science and Engineering Practices like:

  • Asking Questions and Defining Problems
  • Planning and Carrying Out Investigations
  • Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions
  • Engaging in Argument from Evidence
  • Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information

And those are just the ridiculously obvious ones! Of course the practices-I-didn’t-name are involved in every other component as well.

And if you’re still trying to understand the practices, check out this article on the blog!

The truth is, incorporating literacy in our classroom is a fundamental component of teaching science. It’s part of shifting our classrooms away from a content-is-king approach toward a truly three-dimensional, content-and-skills learning experience.

More Resources For Scientific Literacy

Incorporating Literacy In Discovery Based Learning

Incorporate Literacy In Science With Authentic Texts

Developing Data Literacy in Science Classrooms

Teaching NGSS Literacy and Argumentation By Understanding Scarce Water Resources