Thursday, August 20, 2015

Making Sense of Literacy in Science: Applying Literacy Strategies to Science, Disciplinary Literacy in Science, and/or Scientific Literacy

Taking a hiatus from the pathway of my previous posts, I've been thinking about disciplinary literacy this summer.

Notions of literacy in science run in several directions that do not always have clear definitions or delineations. Several resources describe how teachers can apply literacy strategies to support student understanding. Current literature emphasizes “disciplinary literacy” in science, while longstanding commentary also emphasizes the importance of a scientifically literate populace. Below, I propose definitions for these three ideas--applying literacy strategies in science, disciplinary literacy, and scientific literacy--that connect the terms science and literacy, providing examples to illustrate how they differ. In my next blog post, I will describe two science lessons, one from lower elementary and one from middle school, showing how these strategies and frameworks intersect. 

Applying Literacy Strategies to Science
Generally, when I hear about science and literacy, it involves helping students comprehend their science textbook or other science reading. It’s a series of strategies from the field of literacy that educators can apply in a science context. For example, teachers could ask students to do a “close reading” of a text, pulling out specific vocabulary, key ideas, and answers to text-based questions. Or, a teacher might pre-teach vocabulary, and have students write the words in sentences and draw pictures illustrating those words. Perhaps students provide one another feedback on the effectiveness of a presentation. Did you speak clearly and emphasize a few main points? Did you have good eye contact? Generally, these strategies are useful, but they’re not science specific. They could be applied to any disciplinary context. These types of strategies are often mislabeled as “disciplinary literacy.” I would advocate they are not. Disciplinary literacy is not just a new name for reading in a content area. 

Disciplinary Literacy
Scientists have a unique way of working with text and communicating ideas. They read an article or watch a video with a particular lens and a particular way of thinking about the material. Engaging with disciplinary literacy in science means approaching or creating a text with that lens. Notably, the a text is not just a book. The Wisconsin DPI defines text as any communication, spoken, written, or visual, involving language. Reading like a scientist is different from having strategies to comprehend a complex text, and the texts involved have unique characteristics. Further, if students themselves are writing like scientists, their own texts can become the scientific texts that they collaboratively interact with and revise over time. In sum, disciplinary literacy in science is the confluence of science content knowledge, experience, and skills, merged with the ability to read, write, listen, and speak, in order to effectively communicate about scientific phenomena. 

As a disciplinary literacy task in a classroom, students might be asked to write an effective lab report or decipher the appropriateness of a methodology explained in a scientific article. They might listen to audio clips, describing with evidence how one bird’s “song” differs throughout a day. Or, they could present a brief description of an investigation they’re conducting in order to receive feedback from peers.

Scientific Literacy
Scientists use a set of skills that is broader than text, moving beyond the realm of “literacy” in terms of language, to specific ways of thinking about and interacting with particular phenomena. Therefore, disciplinary literacy in science is a subset of the broader abilities described within the concept of scientific literacy

Building on ideas from the National Science Education Standards (p. 22, 1996), scientific literacy implies a base level  of scientific understanding and ability that enables a student to effectively “ask, find, or determine answers to questions derived from curiosity about everyday experiences.” Literacy skills generally connect with science understanding as a student researches a phenomenon of interest or even watches the news. Further, scientific literacy and disciplinary literacy merge in the ability to “read with understanding articles about science in the popular press and to engage in social conversation about the validity of the conclusions.”  Further, “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”--a process that requires an understanding of scientific practices along with the literacy skill of evaluating sources. 

Clearly, disciplinary literacy and scientific literacy work together. Because “scientific literacy implies that a person can identify scientific issues underlying national and local decisions and express positions that are scientifically and technologically informed,” our students must develop the skills and understanding to clearly communicate complex, scientific information through various media. They must also learn “to pose and evaluate arguments based on evidence and to apply conclusions from such arguments appropriately.” Argumentation with evidence is a literacy skill that applies across all disciplines, but it requires an ability to apply unique disciplinary lenses to evidence and communication methods to effectively carry it out in a scientific context. 

Continuing with the brief bird song example mentioned above, scientific literacy skills would be necessary to generate meaningful questions, such as, “Why do birds sing?” Or, further, “Do variations in bird song correlate with particular behaviors?” Students might start with making observations of bird behaviors and songs through a set timeframe, then comparing and contrasting bird songs. Determining a proper timeframe, sufficient subjects for study, and other investigation parameters would be aspects of scientific literacy. Effectively collaborating with classmates to conduct the investigation and communicating explanations with evidence would involve essential disciplinary literacy skills. 

In other words, scientific literacy encompasses a broader range of work with scientific practices than disciplinary literacy. Students can show some ability and understanding of science practices through text, but scientific literacy also requires physical performance of these practices. Further, it requires background knowledge, whereas a disciplinary task in science, such as creating an effective data table, might not require such knowledge. Students planning and conducting a chemistry experiment moves beyond textual interaction to knowing when to use a fume hood and how to be safe more generally in a lab. Scientific literacy also requires mathematical thinking and a comprehension of scale for effective study of daily phenomena. These skills come into play in defining and modeling a particular system, with all relevant components.  

A late addition to this post - great article along these lines in Science!

In my next blog post, I’ll look more in depth at two lessons, one from elementary and one from middle school, showing the intersection of these three notions of literacy and science.

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