Literacy in Science


Science and literacy learning make a dynamic duo, the perfect tag-team.

Inquiry-based science requires students use the tools of science to seek answers to their questions about real world phenomena. Students compare their thinking, communicate with each other, and express their ideas through words and graphics. The use of literacy skills while learning science content  extends and expands their] scientific reasoning (Hapgood & Palincsar, 2007).A growing body of research and practice in science instruction indicates language is essential for science learning. Language allows students to clarify their ideas, make claims, present arguments, and record and present findings (Worth, 2006).

The National Science Education Standards' definition of science literacy also emphasizes the link between science knowledge and literacy skills. "Scientific literacy means that a person can ask, find, or determine answers to questions derived from curiosity about everyday experiences. It means that a person has the ability to describe, explain, and predict natural phenomena. Scientific literacy entails being able to read with understanding articles about science in the popular press and to engage in social conversation about the validity of the conclusions. Scientific literacy implies that a person can identify scientific issues underlying national and local decisions and express positions that are scientifically and technologically informed. A literate citizen should be able to evaluate the quality of scientific information on the basis of its source and the methods used to generate it. Scientific literacy also implies the capacity to pose and evaluate arguments based on evidence and to apply conclusions from such arguments appropriately" (National Research Council, 1996).

The Common Core State Standards and Minnesota's English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects Standards further highlight the critical role that literacy (writing, reading, speaking, viewing listening and media literacy) plays across content areas, especially in the area of science.

Science learning gives literacy an authentic context. Students learn science concepts and  comprehend text best while engaging in authentic inquiry experiences combined with reading, writing, and verbal communication. While many students learn science content through inquiry and classroom instruction alone, students who read, write and talk about science go beyond what's presented in class. A study by Swan (2003) showed those students that observed and interacted with scientific phenomenon in combination with access to interesting texts gained greater conceptual knowledge of the science content and experienced greater engagement than those without the literacy connection.  [BL4] The contributions of literacy enable students to continue to learn, reflect, and communicate about science issues throughout their lives.


Why is pairing science and literacy instruction important?

"In an age fueled by information and driven by technology, understanding the concepts and process of science is as indispensable as knowing how to read, write, speak, and listen...Adults in the twenty-first century...will need to be scientifically literate-to possess a set of skills that marries knowledge of science concepts, facts, and processes with the ability to use language to articulate and communicate about ideas" (Thier & Daviss, 2002).

Research supports that:

  • Reading to explore science topics, combined with firsthand investigation and discussions, can help students acquire reading strategies even better than direct instruction in those strategies can.
  • Science inquiry is a powerful motivator for learning to speak, write and read effectively. Students find compelling occasions to use writing in the context of scientific inquiry.
  • Science texts offer numerous opportunities to expand student vocabularies, an important benefit given the relationship between vocabulary knowledge and reading achievement.
  • Content-oriented instruction and writing yield higher gains in reading comprehension than does most strategy-oriented instruction.
  • Class discussions, writing, and read-aloud opportunities increase students' skills in using science vocabulary and in describing and understanding science concepts.
  • An inquiry approach to informational science texts helps students learn to question and be critical of texts rather than to always defer to the text or use texts simply for finding answers. (Hapgood & Palincsar, 2007)


Science and literacy are based on parallel or reciprocal processes. Both scientists and readers, writers, and communicators activate background knowledge, observe, ask questions, search for information, design investigations, note details, compare and contrast, sequence events, distinguish fact from opinion, make inferences and predictions, link cause and effect, and use language to communicate their findings..

While class time can sometimes feel compromised by pressure to prepare students for federally mandated tests, one solution is to integrate the disciplines within science and literacy by blending real-world science experiences with access to interesting texts, supported with the written and spoken word. Rich, integrated instruction in this way guides students toward mastery in both science and literacy,

Planning & Instruction

How do I intentionally integrate literacy and science instruction, maximizing student learning in both areas, making efficient use of class time, and enhancing my own teaching skills?

Good readers, communicators (writers and speakers), and scientists for that matter, are skilled in:

1. asking questions
2. making predictions
3. searching for information

4. testing hypothesis

5. rummarizing and representing findings
6. monitoring understanding

These skills need to be incorporated into science instruction. Students have difficulty reading and communicating about the science if they don't have science knowledge.  Likewise, students have difficulty learning science if they don't have literacy skills.

Some strategies and tools that assist students with reading comprehension and writing are:

  • double entry journals in which students post questions, make observations about the text, summarize and make connections
  • KWL- a graphic that helps students identify prior knowledge , establish a purpose for reading and summarize or synthesize what they have learned (K = what I know, W = what I want to learn, L = what I learned)
  • graphic organizers that help students understand the texts' structure and/or to map out relationships of semantic knowledge needed to understand vocabulary
  • anticipation guides that help students identify key ideas and reasoning in the text
  • coding or annotation of texts to pose questions, mark main ideas, make predictions, mark reactions
  • posing questions of the text (Lee & Spratley, 2010)

According to Writing Next, writing instructional strategies that are effective in helping students write to learn and learn to write include many of those identified as Best Practice in science learning:

  • teaching composing processes (brainstorming, planning, drafting, conferencing, revising and editing) which mirror many science processes (posing a question or making a claim, doing research, drafting a position, conferencing with others, revising and publishing results)
  • summarization - identifying what is relevant and important to a topic/issue
  • collaborative writing - using social interaction to frame thinking
  • using technology in communicating findings
  • inquiry activities - analyzing data to help develop ideas and content

Integrating science and literacy instruction motivates and focuses learning. It offers real reasons for learning both science and literacy knowledge and skills. Students best learn science content by researching, doing inquiry, reading, writing and discussing science issues and concepts.

The most effective method of teaching literacy skills is through an integrated approach as well. Reading, writing, speaking and listening are best taught in tandem, since all support each other. Literacy is also best taught within a meaningful and authentic context, in this case science.

Examples of integrated learning are:

1.    In the context of scientific inquiry, students are taught to record questions, document how they have set up investigations, incorporate information they have read, display collected data, create drawings, tables, and graphs, and supplement a written product with a oral or visual presentation. 

2.    Prior to doing a lab, students are taught useful vocabulary for discussing the concept or topic, keep a journal of writing on topics related to the lab, write exit or admit slips identifying questions they have about the topic, listen to a think-aloud modeled by the teacher doing a similar lab, and produce an independent lab report.

3.    Incorporate the use of science notebooks shifting ownership of materials and processes away from worksheets. Students develop ownership, build understanding, and organize their content in a personalized and archivable fashion.

4.    Build engagement in the literacy block through interactions with science. Students develop interest, purpose, and excitement as they go to text to support their interest in the scientific phenomenon. Science builds engagement; engaged readers learn more.

Merely assigning reading and writing is not adequate. Students need to be taught, through teacher modeling and instruction, how to do journal writing, state a claim, do think alouds, write reports, ask questions, conduct research, gather relevant information, create graphics, do oral and visual presentations, all of which can be done in the context of science learning.  Students need to understand the importance of the conventions of written and spoken language, just as they learn the conventions of scientific investigation.

References & Resources

Douglas, R,  Klentschy, M.P., & Worth, K (Eds.). (2006). Linking Science & Literacy in the K-8 Classroom. Arlington, VA: NSTA Press.

Fisher, D., Frey, N. & Williams, D. (2002). "Seven Literacy Strategies that Work," Educational Leadership, 60 (3), 70-73.

Graham, S. , & Perin, D. (2007). Writing Next: Effective Strategies to Improve Writing of Adolescents in Middle and High Schools. Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Grant, M.C., & Fisher, D. (2010). Reading and Writing in Science. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Guthrie, J.T., Wigfield, A, & Perencevich, K.C. (Eds). (2004). Motivating reading comprehension: concept-oriented reading instruction. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Hapgood, S., & Pallincsar, A.S. (2007). Where Literacy and Science Intersect.. Education Leadership, 64 (4), 56-60.

Klentschy, M.P. (2008). Using science notebooks in elementary classrooms. Arlington, VA: NSTA Press.

Lee, C.D., & Spratley, A. (2010), Reading in the Disciplines: the Challenges of Adolescent Literacy. Carnegie Corporation of New York, 17-18.

Swan, E.A. (2003). Concept-oriented reading instruction: Engaging classrooms, lifelong learners. New York: The Guilford Press.

National Science Education Standards. (1996). National Academy of Sciences. Washington D.C., 22.

Thier, M., & Daviss, B. (2002). The New Science Literacy: Using Language Skills to Help Students Learn Science. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.