What Does Science Literacy Mean in the Age of NGSS?

Science teachers have a passion for science — the intrigue, the connection to everyday life, and its reliance on evidence. The love of the content drives science teachers to share the beauty of science with students, and not many are willing to forgo content in place of reading for reading’s sake. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which promote discipline-specific literacy, are prompting some questions from the science-teacher community: “Why teach literacy in the science classroom?” “Won’t that take time away from science content?”

However, the beauty of discipline-specific literacy is that science teachers do not have to sacrifice scientific practices; in fact, science and literacy blend together beautifully and in ways that support scientific practices. In the age of the NGSS as well as the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), discipline-specific literacy is not just suggested, it’s required if a teacher is to meet the demands of current standards.

Here are 3 ways the NGSS support scientific thinking:

Science isn’t science without reporting results. Scientists as well as engineers rely on the results of previous studies to drive their research or planning. A big component of NGSS is implementing scientific and engineering practices. Literacy is a part of those practices. Think about a career scientist — not the stereotypical wild-haired, serious character who dons a white lab coat and glasses, holding fizzy test tubes. Think about a real scientist — a scholarly individual who actually spends a great deal of his or her time reading the works of other scientists and writing about their own in order to add to the knowledge base. Real-life scientists spend a lot of time reading and writing, and their writing has specific formats and purposes.

The focus on inquiry-based lessons remains strong in the era of NGSS. Incorporating discipline-specific literacy isn’t anything new to science teachers. Students have always written lab reports following an investigation, and science textbooks are filled with the information needed to build content knowledge. What is new with NGSS and CCSS is that they are even more specific concerning the purpose and function of reading and writing in the science discipline. Instead of just following “cookbook” directions that have been previously outlined, students engage in true inquiry in which they conduct the investigation themselves.

Since scientists and engineers routinely base their investigations and proposals on the works of peers, researching for background knowledge is imperative. Designing and executing investigations requires background knowledge, and students may be seen reading and researching prior to such activities. The same is true for engineering practices. Engineers solve problems, and in order to propose a solution to a problem, reading and research is also required. The formats in which students write are also discipline-specific. The generic, humdrum lab report can be transformed into a formal report that follows the same format as scientific publications, from magazine articles to peer-reviewed journals (but on the student’s level, of course). Students engaged in engineering practices may write design proposals, just like career engineers. A sacrifice of science? I think not!

3 more ways to promote literacy in science classrooms:

  • Create literacy-rich projects that require active reading and responding to scientific texts.
  • Iterate that making inferences, developing procedures, analyzing data, drawing conclusions, and justifying results in writing is scientific literacy in action.
  • Use scientific texts as the anchor for rich discussions, debates, or Socratic seminars.

Watch Shelia’s students analyze a scientific journal:

Shelia D. Banks is an instructional coach and school support specialist in public schools in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana.

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