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Books in Translation

March 2011 | Volume 68 | Number 6
What Students Need to Learn

Teaching Science Literacy

Maria Grant and Diane Lapp

Four actions help teachers foster citizens who are critical thinkers about science-related issues.

Jacqueline, a 12th grader, is purchasing her first car and feels torn as she balances conflicting desires and messages. She yearns to be seated behind the wheel of a stylish vehicle, a yearning fueled by advertisements portraying women in luxurious cars. She's also confronted by billboard messages that claim "best fuel economy for your money!" and "great for the environment!"

With her modest budget, Jacqueline knows she must consider the cost of routine maintenance and gas. She also cares about how the fuel emissions of different brands of cars will affect air quality and the environment. Jacqueline realizes she needs more information—including information on carbon emissions, the ozone layer, and global warming—to make a careful decision.

Every day, the need to make decisions related to science confronts young people. Although buying a car might seem to be a financial or lifestyle issue, the choice connects to environmental science. Fortunately, Jacqueline has practiced solving problems, analyzing data, and making informed, data-driven decisions in her science classes; and she understands that her decisions today can affect the environment she will live in tomorrow.

Scanning articles in Consumer Reports, Jacqueline notes columns of data comparing average miles per gallon on the freeway, safety testing data, and carbon fuel emissions ratings of the three car models she's considering. She reads about the strengths and weaknesses of each model, including pricing and resale value, and makes notes to guide her decision making.

We might say Jacqueline is critically literate in science, meaning she has the ability to read, write, think, and talk about real-world science issues (Lapp & Fisher, 2010).

Critical Literacy as Personal Empowerment

As part of working toward scientific literacy for students, teachers must consider the concept of critical literacy. Just look at the number of science-related issues that directly affect human beings—global warming, access to clean water, and the availability of renewable energy, to name just a few—and ask yourself two questions:

  1. Do most students think about the effect of these issues on their everyday lives?
  2. Do our students consider the roles they might play in changing how a science-connected problem is resolved over the coming decades?

Probably not, unless they are taught to do so.

As Trefil and O'Brien-Trefil (2009) noted, questions like these should provide the foundation of young people's scientific literacy and related social responsibility. A key part of being critically literate is becoming involved in issues beyond the personal.

Teachers can help students become part of society's science conversations by using real-world applications of science in instruction and by inviting students to discuss and debate relevant and motivating content. Informed acts that make a difference in society—whether as simple as casting a ballot for or against an environmental issue or as complex as working on the research and development of a new alternative fuel source—are characteristic of individuals who possesses critical science literacy.

As a science educator and a literacy educator—who are also both high school teachers and university professors—we propose four actions to promote critical literacy in science classrooms.

1. Identify science topics of interest.

An astute science educator can weave real-world science topics into a standards-based curriculum without sacrificing a moment of purposeful instructional time. A look at global warming in the physics classroom can lead to a basic discussion of water density or to a sophisticated explanation of the Stefan-Boltzmann law (which can be used to determine how much energy the sun gives off and to calculate the temperature of Earth, both crucial elements in understanding global warming). Such conversations lend relevance to what might otherwise be an isolated discussion of theory. And students who think critically about germane issues are more likely to be interested, active participants in the classroom.

We believe every standards-based notion needs to be connected to the real world. Consider the following suggestions for topics:

  • X-rays and the human body (connected to anatomy and nuclear medicine).
  • The effects of drugs on the body and mind (related to anatomy, neuroscience, and health).
  • Oil spills (connected to oceanography, geology, and marine biology).
  • Drought and water use (connected to geology and earth science).
  • The effect of natural disasters (connected to geology and earth science and health).

Classroom science teachers must build an extensive list of this type before they plan their lessons and then invite students to own the list by adding topics that they would enjoy studying. The goal is to make students want to live science.

2. Engage students in reading the research.

After selecting a topic, it's time to build students' base of knowledge. For background science information, science-related texts are the first resource to examine. Unfortunately, students often stumble in reading science textbooks or scholarly articles, which generally use unfamiliar, multisyllabic words and sentences that require extensive background knowledge.

Science educators must generate connections among science concepts, societal issues, and the vocabulary students will meet in textbooks. Consider a chapter on water in an earth science textbook that deals with concepts aligned with the science standards: "know the importance of water to society, the origins of fresh water, and the relationship between supply and need" (adapted from the California Department of Education Earth Science Standards). The book might use such terminology as fluvial systems, flow management, and restoration. These are important terms for any relevant conversation on water use, but likely unfamiliar ones. An understanding of where and how river waters originate and issues related to human use and reuse of water could help motivate students to learn such terms and build a foundation that would eventually allow for an expanded discussion of flow management and restoration.

How might a teacher approach the topic of water in a way that's relevant and interesting to average 9th or 10th graders and builds background knowledge? One strategy is to assemble an array of topic-related texts from various sources, including trade books, news articles, and even poems. Scientists in the field often read every article they can find on a topic to build background knowledge and gain an understanding of terminology currently used in a particular field of study; they call this practice "reading the research."

Secondary-level teachers can apply "reading the research" to any science topic at hand. For example, trade books like A Drop Around the World (Dawn Publications, 1998) or One Well: The Story of Water on Earth (Kids Can Press, 2007) provide access to water-related vocabulary and foundational ideas about water use, both of which are essential to higher-level reading on the topic. A collection of news articles related to pertinent water-use issues might ignite passion and spark related conversation among newly motivated students.

Lists of science-related trade books and reading resources are available from the National Science Teachers Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Consider the so-called "toilet to tap" proposals that provoked debate in San Diego in the 1990s. The idea is that toilet water from one community can be cleaned and pumped back into reservoirs that provide water to the home taps of other communities. Although a heated argument led to the demise of the initial proposal, the practice of reusing toilet water has been tried in numerous communities. In Orange County, California, for instance, cleaned toilet water is reintroduced into aquifers before it's pumped back through taps. This is a real-world, relevant issue that some states may soon present for the approval of voters, a population that will shortly include our middle and high school students.

3. Teach students to read like scientists.

To foster comprehension, it's not enough for students to merely have a handful of topic-related readings to peruse. They must also develop the ability to read and think like scientists. This means developing strategies for reading scientific writing and building a deep understanding of related vocabulary.

One of the best ways for teachers to help students learn how to comprehend a science text is to model the thinking that occurs while reading graphs, charts, data tables, and data analysis sections. Proficient science readers will read the text that correlates to a table of data, for example, and then study the table, looking for features like units of measure, data range values, and column titles. They will then look back at the text to reread, or continue reading, in an effort to connect this information to the text.

A teacher can conduct a think-aloud while reading so students can learn what proficient science reading looks and sounds like. For instance, 9th grade science teacher Ms. Kim looks at a chart in a text and says, "I think this is showing the percentage of freshwater on earth. I know that I just read in the text that freshwater means there are little or no dissolved salts in the water." As Ms. Kim models how she goes back and forth between the text and the chart to determine meaning, she's also showing that she thinks about the text as she reads.

Likewise, a teacher can model how to recognize typical text patterns in science writing, show how to use root words to determine word meaning, or connect prior knowledge to new ideas. A teacher might say,

I remember last week when we read about how water is transferred through an aqueduct, or a long system of canals and tunnels, between Colorado and Southern California. Maybe the aqueduct near Washington, D.C., is similar.

4. Guide learners to evaluate data.

Students need to understand how to evaluate data sources. Numbers connected to chemicals found in seawater sampled near the explosion of the British Petroleum oil well in Louisiana would probably hold no meaning for the untrained student. However, students who understand something about the units these numbers represent (for instance, that μg/L means micrograms per liter) and that the values of benzene or naphthalene need to be evaluated in reference to what levels of such chemicals are harmful can make meaning from these data.

Students need to understand where data were collected, how they were collected, and what they represent. Like scientists in the lab or in the field, the classroom scientist must learn that it's crucial to consider multiple sources of data to analyze and draw conclusions. Although data collection may not always be possible in a classroom lab, a teacher can ensure that students have opportunities to review real-world data from multiple sources. Visit data centers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for real data on everything from the level of oceanic sediments to the locations of toxic chemical storage sites in the United States.

Students could analyze numerous sources of data related to the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. For example, in small groups students might compare online sources showing U.S. government data on the amount of oil remaining from the spill and data on the same question published by private water-sampling firms. They could create a compare-and-contrast chart and write a summary of their conclusions and lingering questions.

Beyond Car Shopping

Teaching focused on fostering critical literacy has far-reaching implications. As young people like Jacqueline experience such instruction, they become more perceptive about the world around them and more empowered to make decisions about how they interact with that world.


Grant, M., & Fisher, D. (2010). Reading and writing in science: Tools to develop disciplinary literacy. Corwin Press: Thousand Oaks, CA.

Lapp, D., & Fisher, D. (2010) Critical literacy: Examining the juxtaposition of issue, author, and self. Multicultural Perspectives, 12(3), 156–160.

Trefil, J., & O'Brien-Trefil, W. (2009). The science students need to know. Educational Leadership, 67(1), 28–33.

Maria Grant is associate professor in the College of Education, California State University, Fullerton; 619-952-3389. Diane Lapp is Distinguished Professor of Education, College of Education, San Diego State University; 619-405-8705. Both are teachers and collegial coaches at Health Sciences High and Middle College in San Diego, California.


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