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Scientific literacy in the contemporary classroom

Literacy, in particular cross-curricular literacy, is highly topical in the current education climate. Literacy is the ability for students to read, write, comprehend and participate in a literate world’s global conversation. Scientific literacy in particular is of great importance, as it teaches students to look and think critically across a range of contexts. When students are able to compose and comprehend different forms of scientific texts, their thinking shifts toward critically and creatively finding potential solutions to problems.

The next generation of workers will need to look at difficult problems creatively, distil them down into key components and generate innovative solutions. In our increasingly automated and interconnected world, critical problem solving will hold an unprecedented value in society.

Teachers have the opportunity to empower students to ask questions about information they encounter, by preparing them with a high level of scientific literacy. While some students may inherently excel in the application of scientific literacy, often this skill requires explicit teaching and contextualised learning.

One of the aims of the Australian Curriculum and NSW Syllabus is to contextually teach scientific literacy. As a crucial skill in a student’s education, a high level of scientific literacy enables understanding, critical analysis of information, data and the evaluation of different points of view.

Language Comprehension

Initially it is critical that students understand scientific language and how it varies according to context and over time, that students are able to use scientific language flexibly and fluently. Language is therefore essential in providing the link between the concept itself and student understanding and for assessing whether the student has understood the concept. This is important not only for the core content of scientific words, but also understanding what questions are asking them and key cognitive verbs. A student’s ability to discern what a question is asking of them is important, for example, whether it requires analysis or just a description of scientific ideas. Only once a level of fluency is at a competent level can we then start to challenge students more broadly with contextual challenging literacy tasks, such as comprehension or writing activities around current events like the recent volcanic eruption in Indonesia.

Incorporating literacy opportunities is really valuable in preparing students to participate in the scientific conversation and to create that scientifically critical view of the world. These opportunities can be threaded and embedded into everyday science teaching in the classroom with heightened awareness to the literacy opportunities within all science content.