The need to support the development of good literacy skills within science lessons has been recognised for many years.
The recent and planned changes in assessment have raised the priority of this area in many schools alongside the important role literacy plays in the development of scientific knowledge and understanding. Science involves the exploration, investigation, recording, reporting and analysis of the world around us, often in a collaborative way. This needs creative and analytical thinking and communication skills to advance our knowledge and understanding of the world in which we live, not to forget our impact upon it. Literacy is a key feature of communication, enabling one scientist to collaborate with another, sharing ideas and hypotheses, assessing the validity of conclusions and identifying areas for further exploration. Without effective literacy skills, scientific development would be greatly hindered, if not stifled completely.
So what do we mean by literacy and what can we do to improve students’ ability to use it within the science they experience at school?
At the simplest level, literacy involves three components:
All three are important within science – although the emphasis is often placed on outcomes delivered through a written product.
It is important to empower students to talk about their work as this enables them to construct and secure their thinking about the topic being considered before committing it to paper.
Reading is vital as it enables students to gather information and to consider views held by others so that they can explore new developments and applications and to consider their impact on the world around us.
Writing enables students to commit their ideas to paper for scrutiny by others (peer review remains a key aspect of the scientific method); it has also become the aspect most used as a tool to assess and externally verify the performance of individual students.
Other curriculum subject areas make use of and develop these same literacy skills, but science teaching is not always effective at making use of the transferable skills developed by students elsewhere. Whilst we might need students to be able to write in particular forms and for particular purposes in science, we can build upon students’ existing skills by using the approaches and techniques they have already practiced and secured in English or the Humanities.
My session on Literacy in Science at the Science Teaching and Learning Conference on 1st – 2nd July 2013 will explore these areas further.
The national network of Science Learning Centres also run Enhancing Literacy Skills in Science courses in your region and the National STEM Centre has a range of resources called Literacy in Science Training Materials.
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