Many science teachers are apprehensive about including texts in their classroom instruction. This is the result of the perceived antagonistic relationship between reading about science and doing science. As teachers move toward instructional strategies that emphasize doing science as the primary mode of scientific inquiry, scientific literacy has fallen by the wayside.

Reimagining the Relationship

Research suggests that this understanding of the relationship between literacy and scientific inquiry is misguided (Pearson, et al., 2010). Texts are, after all, the medium through which investigations are recorded. These textual records allow science as a discipline to build on itself, as scientists consult the work of others when designing their own experiments. If this is true, then science literacy is less about the content of scientific inquiry than its form. As scientific investigations are conducted through language, both written and oral, literacy can be seen as indispensable rather than antagonistic to the students’ proper understanding of the discipline. When approached from this angle, science literacy education aims to drive inquiry through literacy, and thus the old dichotomy of doing or reading is replaced by the synthesis of doing by reading.

Science literacy education aims to drive inquiry through literacy

Toward an Integrated Approach

Once the relationship between doing science and reading about science is reconstructed, science instructors can begin to embrace more literacy strategies in their classrooms. By developing an integrated approach, science topic areas can be covered in a way that combines texts with experiments to reinforce main ideas. Literacy skills such as summarizing, clarifying, inferencing, and constructing arguments are all important parts of the experimental phase of science education. Teachers can reinforce these skills by including writing activities in their instruction before, during, and after completing investigative experiments.

Before experimentation, teachers can include texts that explain the history of a topic area or any requisite background knowledge. These texts can be supported by writing activities that draw on students’ prior knowledge. Reading and writing in this way allows students to begin making inferences and hypothesizing about the outcomes of an experiment. This hypothesizing creates goals that students can use as touchstones as they progress. This goal-oriented behavior motivates students and prevents them from losing interest.

Hypothesizing creates goals that students can use as touchstones as they progress

During experimentation, students should be encouraged to write their observations in a systemized way. Such systemization is foundational to the scientific method, which adheres to a strict set of procedures in order to ensure consistency in its results. Systemized note-taking during experimentation develops students’ literacy skills of summarizing as they are tasked with recording what is happening in a concise way that includes the relevant facts. Analytic and interpretive skills should be reserved for post-experiment reports.

After an experiment, students develop their literacy skills not only in the writing of a report, but also in the presentation of that report and the discussion surrounding it. As students write reports of their findings, the literacy skills of inferencing and drawing conclusions are emphasized. These skills challenge students to identify the connections between variables and results, as well as express this logical reasoning through language. In being able to communicate the logical structure of their own experiments through writing, students will consequently become more adept at recognizing similar modes of reasoning in the scientific reports of others.  Science classrooms should mirror the scientific process of peer review by promoting an environment where students are encouraged to present and discuss their findings and conclusions with each other.

Once the relationship between literacy and scientific inquiry is understood as complementary rather than antagonistic, science educators can begin to identify opportunities for the introduction of reading and writing exercises at every stage of experimentation.