Why English Teachers Cannot Solve the Literacy Problem in Science Classrooms

“The challenge is to engineer schooling so that students have far more direct and powerful experiences of the actual effects — on themselves, people, and situations- of their work” — Wiggins

Too often, people think that literacy only refers to one’s ability to read and write. If this were indeed the case, then English teachers would be solely responsible for the issues facing many students today. While English teachers may be teaching your science students about vocabulary words such as “compounds”, it is highly unlikely they are teaching them about the compounds related to chemically combined atoms. Herein lies the problem. English teachers are not likely to teach students how to read science, how to write science, or how to do science. These activities are better performed by the science teacher who understands that being literate in science means more than just being able to regurgitate facts about concepts. It is imperative that science teachers incorporate scientific literacy activities into the science classroom that will allow students to become “doers” of science. They need to become skeptical, analytical thinkers capable of conducting investigations and backing up claims with evidence who can also provide clear, concise communication to others. There are many ways that science teachers can advocate science literacy in the classroom. The most important way is by “having student read, write, and talk like scientists do” (Quinlin & Cazier, 2009,p.89).

First and foremost, science teachers must give students’ work a purpose. By making students’ efforts meaningful, they will be motivated to active learning. Reading from a textbook, answering questions, and filling out a worksheet does not count as “doing science”. Little knowledge is retained and no skills are practiced. Students do little more than regurgitate information when learning in this capacity. They are likely to retain more information for a longer time when given a task to perform while learning the state required content (Strobel, 2009, p.55). Performing the task itself requires a higher level thought process that enhances students’ cognitive ability and allows students to practice the skills performed daily by scientists. Students need to rehearse tasks that require their innovation, judgement, knowledge, and skill. “The challenge is to engineer schooling so that students have far more direct and powerful experiences of the actual effects — on themselves, people, and situations- of their work” (Wiggins, 1998, p.3). Teachers can make work meaningful by knowing what their students find interesting and building activities (problem based learning tasks) according to their culture and experiences. Creating a task to bridge the connection between content and students’ lives will show students that what they are being asked to do serves a purpose. The task, however, should be at a level just above the students’ level, and not so overwhelming as to cause frustration. Allowing students to have a voice in the choice of the task can empower them to lifelong learning (Liftig, 2013, p.1). These things lead students toward becoming scientifically literate.

One of the main skills associated with science is that of research. Research calls for extensive reading. Reading some scientific texts can be a daunting task for students who may not understand the science vocabulary and complex text well enough to initially comprehend the information. Teachers can help science students by modeling how to read scientific texts. Have students write down questions about what they don’t understand by jotting outside the margin and underlining vocabulary they need to look up. This is a great tool for formative assessment. While students are reading and jotting down ideas in the margin, the teacher is able to quickly see what students may be having problems with and can help them interpret the text by asking guiding questions or offering support in a number of ways (Plaut, p.91). It is a good idea to keep the level of the text at or just above students’ reading level, and choose texts that are not solely textbook based. Some texts may be too challenging for lower level readers causing them to give up on the task. By introducing information in ways other than just textbooks (such as science magazines or even poetry) students can choose from a variety of sources. Students who may not see themselves as “scientists” may have more confidence connecting to the content through a poem or other media. The key is finding material that will engage students and keep them motivated (Allington, 2002, p.19). We need to keep students wondering about the natural world around us…asking questions and seeking to find the out why things are the way they are.

Don’t forget that many scientific articles contain multimodal text such as graphs, tables, and illustrations that students need to interpret. Students should be taught the importance of reading these as well as the typed or written words to give deeper understanding of what they are reading. These graphics often provide critical supporting information directly related to the idea the author is trying to convey. This information can help lead students to a deeper understanding of the content. Just reading and interpreting these graphics, however, is not enough. Students have to participate in the activities leading up to these artifacts as often as possible to become truly science literate (Smagorinsky, 2011, p.59). By doing so, students can more effectively develop and argue for or against claims by using evidence from data.

Students do not have to be scientists, but they must be scientifically literate to keep those who do know science from taking advantage of them…skepticism is crucial.

A final thought concentrates on student communication of ideas and information. Teachers can have students practice scientific writing by having them write lab reports, persuasive papers, or reflections about the investigations they are completing for class. Just as a scientist’s work is peer reviewed, teachers should provide opportunities for students to undergo similar activities. Having work peer reviewed gives students the opportunity to think skeptically and critically about the information they are receiving from their audience. The owner of the work is also required to support their claims with evidence from data. This plays a major role in being scientifically literate. Not only that, but this type literacy allows students to tie ideas about the real world (politics, for example) to scientific ideas. Even if students do not intend to pursue a career in science, they still need to be scientifically literate to evaluate the ideas and opinions of others who may try to use data that has been twisted to their own advantage. Scientific literacy means being skeptical, and all people need to practice this!

By having students “do” science, practice reading, writing, and communicating like real scientist do, we can produce scientifically literate students who can effect change on a societal level whether they are in a scientifically related field or not. This job of producing scientifically literate stewards is best performed by science teachers who know and understand the requirements.


Allington, R. L. (2002). You can’t learn much from books you can’t read.Educational Leadership, 60(3), 16–19.

Christenbury, L., Bomer, R., & Smagorinsky, P. (Eds.). (2011). Handbook of adolescent literacy research. Guilford Press.

Liftig, I. (2013). Making science meaningful. Science Scope, 36(7), 1–1.

Plaut, S. (2009). The Right To Literacy In Secondary School: Creating a Culture of Thinking. Education Review//Reseñas Educativas.

Strobel, J., & Van Barneveld, A. (2009). When is PBL more effective? A meta-synthesis of meta-analyses comparing PBL to conventional classrooms. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-based Learning, 3(1), 4.

Wiggins, G. P. (1998). Educative assessment: Designing assessments to inform and improve student performance (Vol. 1). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


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