Creating Scientifically Literate Students


Creating Scientifically Literate Students 

Brittany Sigsworth



What is Scientific Literacy?


Scientific literacy is the knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity.


According to the National Research Council (1996), a “Scientifically 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.

ask, find, or determine answers to questions derived from curiosity about everyday experiences.

describe, explain, and predict natural phenomena.

read with understanding articles about science in the popular press

engage in social conversation about the validity of the conclusions.

identify scientific issues underlying national and local decisions

express positions that are scientifically and technologically informed.

pose and evaluate arguments based on evidence and to apply conclusions from such arguments appropriately


Why is it important?

 Students are disengaged in science classrooms. Science is an active process, not a passive process. Static, fact-based information is not developing scientifically literate students. Without additional awareness and support, our education system traditionally teaches objective lessons without any critical thinking or evaluation components. 


To be Scientifically Literate, students must be able to comprehend scientific theory, read and engage with informational texts, synthesize arguments and draw conclusions based on evidence, and apply all of these skills to broader social contexts.




TEDx: The #Science of Argumentation (2016) 

Click the picture below to access the video 



In this video, middle school Science teacher Kevin Paiz-Ramirez makes a promise to his students – to keep them engaged and active in the modern scientific dialogue. His idea, #Science, is an opening conversation every day that provides every child something in which to discuss, evaluate, and engage.

His #Science activity begins by finding and presenting a minimum of six scientific “innovations and discoveries” every single day (TEDx, 2016). Students develop critical and analytical skills – a blend of traditional science and rhetorical analysis common in Language Arts or Social Studies – and parents love to hear about what exciting thing their child shares after school each night. His technique supports the National Research Council’s definition of a Scientifically Literate student by providing an opportunity for his students to evaluate scientific information, find answers derived from personal curiosity, engage in a social conversation about the validity of scientific innovations, and evaluate evidence-based arguments (1996).


 Unfortunately, Paiz-Ramirez is exceptional. 


Schools in the United States, statistically, do not provide adequate scientific literacy instruction.




For every 70 minutes devoted to teaching literacy per day, teachers in Elementary schools averaged only 3.6 minutes using informational texts (Collard, 2003, p. 280) 




But Scientific Literacy Matters:  

"Students will develop thinking skills, values, and attitudes that will be useful throughout their lives regardless of their career choices" (Krontiris-Litowitz, 2013) 

"Inquiry based science requires use of tools of science to seek answers to questions about real world phenomena" (Moreno, 1999)

A two year study from the Journal of Microbiology and Biology Education (2013) shows that both high level thinking and basic cognitive process gains will come from clear objectives and long term practice applying scientific literacy in classrooms. 


How to Incorporate Scientific Literacy Instruction into a Classroom 


One study (Collard, 2003) simpy recommended teaching narrative non-fiction texts, even in other content area classrooms, to promote Scientific Literacy. Why? 



1. They do not require prior knowledge of science for the teacher or reader

2. They are more applicable to “real life” writing 

3. They can be a favorite of reluctant readers 

4. Working with informational/narrative non-fiction texts mprove test scores, because more exposure = better performance

5. Familiarity will boost literacy and science skills - important foundations for young students








The difference between scientific understanding and scientific mastery involves application to citizenship through literacy. This graphic comes from a Course Rational of "Global Sustainability: Managing Earth's Resources" from the University of Wyoming. It shows that Fundamental Literacies are the basis of scientific understanding, and societal application of scientific content is the peak of mastery.


Course Rational: 


"The likelihood of students achieving deep and meaningful scientific understanding, and applying it effectively to societal problems, is grounded on three sound foundations: mastery of literacy skills, contextualized scientific content knowledge and social relevancy. Like any other profession, science has a set of literacies that must be mastered before scientific problems can be addressed in an effective and successful manner." (Myers & Campbell-Stone, 2008) 





In a case study of an integrated fourth grade classroom, educators cross-linked Reading, Writing, and Science instruction.


They recieved both explicit skill instruction necessary for reading nonfiction scientific texts about geological processes, but also asked synthesize and record key information in their own science notebooks.

The students engaged in scientific inquiry activites by reading and writing about the conceptual understanding they had developed.

The rational? These educators did not believe that students have ample opportunites to read or write complex texts "in the service of understanding the world," so this authentic scientific literacy application reinforced the necessary mastery skills (Flushman, Parker, & Mendoza, 2016). 



Creating Scientifically Literate Students: A Summary 


1. Scientific Literacy is a skill characterized by the ability to understand and apply scientific processes to personal decision-making, civic and community affairs, and economic productivity. 

2. Educators can promote interest in Scientific Literacy by teaching science in relatable contexts, engaging activities, and integrated instruction. 

3. Many public schools have inadequate Scientific Literacy instruction.

4. Studies have shown that long-term Scientific Literacy instruction correlates to gains in high-level cognitive processes and improved standardized test scores in both Science and Language Arts.















Collard, S. B. (2003). Using Science Books to Teach Literacy: And Save the Planet. The Reading Teacher, (3). 280.

Krontiris-Litowitz, J. (2013). Using Primary Literature to Teach Science Literacy to Introductory Biology Students. Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education : JMBE14(1), 66–77.   

Moreno, N. P. (1999). K-12 science education reform--a primer for scientists. Bioscience49(7), 569.

Myers, James D. and Campbell-Stone, Erin A. (2019) Preparing students for citizenship: fostering critical thinking and problem-solving skills through quantitative reasoning and scientific literacy. 

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

TEDx. (2016, May 25). The #Science of Argumentation: Kevin Paiz-Ramirez: TEDxABQED [Video file]. Retrieved from




Brittany Sigsworth, Miami University

December 5, 2016