Inquiry Learning as a Means of Supporting Students’ Academic Literacy

When many people think back on their experiences in their high school science classrooms, many, including myself, are reminded of endless droning lectures supplemented with chalkboard or overhead notes. What if science education could instead insight wonder and curiosity in the eyes of students? “What if we taught based on the expectation that the ability to engage in inquiry — and the right to pursue a scientific career — is essential to twenty-first century citizenship?” (Klaus-Quinlan & Cazier, 2009, pg. 82). In order to be a successful instructor in the high school science classroom, there are three main aspects that I will be mindful of incorporating into my instruction. I will attempt to support students’ transitions from their primary Discourses to the secondary Discourse of scientific literacy, teach through inquiry, and utilize the Gradual Release of Responsibility framework to properly support student understanding.

As we discussed previously this summer, teaching students to be literate in science, or any discipline, is imperative to their success in that discipline. Teaching students how to bridge the gap between their primary Discourses and the secondary Discourse of the language of science in the classroom should be our number one goal as science educators. As Paolo Freire said in a 1985 interview, “Dialogue is not an empty instructional tactic, but a natural part of the process of knowing” (pg. 15). As science educators, it is our job to speak to our students with the language that our discipline requires, and also to get our students comfortable enough with the language that they not only understand what we are saying, but are able to speak it to us and to each other with ease. Science is a subject that often requires students to argue their points using evidence. “The ability to engage in argumentation and debate is a measure of an adolescent’s growing ability to respond with logical and ethical claims to support or defend a position” (Fisher & Frey, 2010, pg. 33). In order to constructively argue their points, students need to be able to use the scientific terms and reasoning. Gee (2009) stated, “When people act within these secondary Discourses, they are not acting as ‘everyday’ people but as ‘specialists’” (pg. 96). In order for students to truly grasp scientific concepts, they need to act as scientists. This process of acting as scientists includes learning through inquiry, “doing science”, as well as being literate in a scientific context. As Jeff Cazier stated about the science classroom, “Science classrooms should be places where students engage in the authentic work of scientists” (Klaus-Quinlan & Cazier, 2009, pg. 89). Taking Cazier’s idea a step further, “Science literacy is a part of the everyday practices of scientists and thus must be a dimension of science learning for students” (Tang, Tighe, & Moje, 2014, pg. 57). As educators, we need to help students relate to this complicated secondary Discourse of scientific academia. We can accomplish this through having the students “do science”, but then also having them read and write as scientists as well.

In the high school science classroom, student engagement can be an issue that is often attributed to student motivation, but it goes deeper than that. I believe that disengagement from students in the school setting is directly attributed to ineffective teaching. One good way to keep students engaged in the instruction is by creating inquiry. Jeff Cazier, a middle school science teacher in Aurora, Colorado, structures his class through inquiry. “In Jeff’s class, student curiosity — their innate desire to ask questions and seek answers — drives the pursuit of scientific understanding” (Klaus-Quinlan & Cazier, 2009, pg. 81).

As I previously stated, students learn science by doing the work of scientists, and there is no better way than to have students learn about science by investigating their own questions and curiosities about the topic at hand. Not only does inquiry learning keep students engaged, but it also allows them to begin thinking like scientists. As Klaus-Quinlan and Cazier also stated, “The inquiry process harnesses students’ innate curiosity and builds on it, teaching students how to gather evidence, do research, propose explanations, and share their findings” (Klaus-Quinlan & Cazier, 2009, pg. 85). By allowing students to learn through discovery, we can create an interactive learning environment that is well-supported by the instructor. A study done in 2001 by Smith, Lee, and Newmann in Chicago Public Schools “Found clear and consistent correlations between interactive teaching methods and higher levels of learning and achievement” (McTighe, Seif, & Wiggins, 2004, pg. 29). Inquiry learning lends itself well to interactive learning, which leads to success in the classroom. As explained in the 2010 Frey & Fisher paper entitled Motivation Requires a Meaningful Task, “When students are motivated, and supported, they use the language of the lesson, becoming increasingly sophisticated in their use with practice” (pg. 34). Therefore, teaching through inquiry in an interactive classroom not only increases student success, but it also helps students become more scientifically literate.

Even when supporting students’ scientific literacy and teaching through inquiry, teachers can still go wrong with how material is presented by either reteaching what students already know or cutting students loose to work independently before they have sufficiently mastered the material. Teachers should use some form of the Gradual Release of Responsibility (GRR) framework (Grant, Lapp, Fisher, Johnson, & Frey, 2012 & Fisher, Frey, & Lapp, 2010). This GRR framework consists of four stages that shift responsibility from the teacher to student.

In a 1985 interview, Paolo Freire profoundly stated, “We should respect the expectations that students have and the knowledge that students have. Our tendency as teachers is to start from the point where we are and not from the point at which the students are” (pg. 15). Teachers can use the GRR framework to both assess where students are at the beginning of a lesson, and then move through the stages to get the students to where we, as the teachers, are. Traditionally, lessons seem to be set up to flow through the pyramid, beginning with Purpose and Modeling and ending with students working independently, but it does not have to be this way. In order to introduce inquiry, it might be better to start students off with an independent or group activity, and then have the teacher do some modeling after the fact. This GRR framework lends itself well to facilitate responsive teaching in the classroom.

As a future high school science teacher, I know that it is important to support students’ scientific literacy learning, to teach through inquiry to increase engagement, and to utilize the GRR framework to provide students with the tools they need to succeed. As teachers, we also need to constantly be aware of newly developed teaching practices. Paolo Freire (1985) stated, “Teachers should be conscious every day that they are coming to school to learn and not just to teach. This way we are not just teachers but teacher learners” (pg. 16). Our students can always give us new ideas on how to teach more effectively, as long as we are open and responsive to change our ways of thinking.


Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Lapp, D. (2010). Responding When Students Don’t Get It. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 54(1), 57–60. doi:10.1598/jaal.54.1.6

Freire, P. (1985). Reading the World and Reading the Word: An Interview with Paulo Freire. Language Arts,62(1), 15–21. Retrieved from

Frey, N., & Fisher, D. (2010). Motivation Requires a Meaningful Task. English Journal, 100(1), 30–36.

Gee, J. P. (2015). Literacy and education. New York: Routledge.

Grant, M., Lapp, D., Fisher, D., Johnson, K., & Frey, N. (2012). Purposeful Instruction: Mixing Up The “I,” “We,” and “You”. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 56(1), 45–55. doi:10.1002/jaal.00101

Klaus-Quinlan, M., & Cazier, J. (2009). The scientist in the classroom: The place of literacy within scientific inquiry. In S. Plaut (Ed.), The right to literacy in secondary school: Creating a culture of thinking (pp. 81–95). Columbia University: Teachers College.

McTighe, J., Seif, E., & Wiggins, G. (2004). You Can Teach for Meaning. Educational Leadership,62(1), 26–31.

Tang, K., Tighe, S. C., & Moje, E. B. (2014). Literacy in the science classroom. In P. Smagorinsky (Ed.), Teaching dilemmas and solutions in content-area literacy, grades 6–12 (pp. 57–79) Corwin Press.