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Professional Development Modules

Scientific Literacy

Mandate of National Standards

In the first sentence of the National Science Education Standards Overview (NRC, 1996) we read that the primary reason for articulating standards to guide science programs, professional development of science teachers, content and skills to be taught in schools, and assessment in science education is to achieve scientific literacy of all Americans. The authors of the standards give several reasons why scientific literacy is paramount.

  1. We need scientific information to make choices in our daily lives.
  2. Important issues that involve science and technology require informed public debate.
  3. The collective decisions of an informed citizenry will determine how we manage vital natural resources such as air, water, and forests.
  4. There is personal fulfillment in understanding how the natural world works.
  5. Science contributes to vital workplace skills of decision-making, creative thinking, and problem solving.
  6. To compete on a global scale in the world market, we need a capable citizenry.


Literacy means more than the ability to read and write. Historically, scientific literacy referred to nonscientists' need to understand science in a democratic society where science plays a prominent role in economic, personal, and political issues. Science literacy became a national goal in the 1980's (Bybee, 1997).

According to the National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996), scientific literacy is defined as, "the knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity" (p. 22). Elaborating on this definition, the authors give several examples of what a scientific literate person can know and be able to do:

  • act and find answers to questions arising from their own curiosity
  • explain and predict natural phenomena
  • read, understand, and be able to discuss articles about science in popular media
  • identify scientific issues underlying matters requiring national and local decisions
  • use evidence and data to evaluate the quality of science information and arguments put forth by scientists and in the media

Prior to the pronouncements of the authors of the National Science Education Standards, members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science called for the science literacy of all Americans in Project 2061 (AAAS, 1989). Science for All Americans called for science literacy for all. According to AAAS (1989) there are many facets of science literacy, to include: being familiar with the natural world; having awareness of the interdependence of science, mathematics, and technology; knowing the strengths and limitations of science and technology; being able to use scientific ways of thinking for personal and societal purposes; and, understanding key principles and concepts of science. To achieve science literacy for all, schools were asked not to teach more content, but to focus on what is essential to science literacy and to teach these essentials more effectively. It is important to note that AAAS broadens the definition of science literacy to include mathematics and technology, which are addressed in separate chapters in Science for All Americans and woven throughout the science portions of the document. The modules for professional development activities found on this website often include technology content and mathematics processes. Teachers of science must be aware of the interdependence and unity of science, mathematics, and technology as they deepen their knowledge of the natural world and sharpen their science teaching skills.

Thier and Daviss (2002) define science literacy as knowledge of science facts and concepts coupled with the ability to articulate and communicate these ideas using language. The authors make the point that effective science teaching and learning are dependent on strong language skills. "Science and language are inextricably linked in the pursuit, determination, and communication of meaning in the context of the physical world" (p. 8). Using language, teachers clarify and communicate the meaning of science for students. For assessment of their learning, students can effectively use written and spoken language to communicate their science understandings to their teachers. Skills useful for language acquisition may be enhanced by activities conducted in the science class.

Implications for Teaching

While not specifically listed in each of the modules for providers of professional development for science teachers, suggestions to strengthen the science and literacy connection are offered here. See Thier and Daviss (2002) for details of many of these suggestions:

  • reading and listening are behaviors incorporated within a cooperative learning setting. Group work of all kinds demand effective communication skills
  • remember that skills of the scientist (observing details, sequencing events, making predictions, linking cause and effect, distinguishing fact from opinion, making inferences, and drawing conclusions) are corresponding skills taught as literacy skills
  • vocabulary building skills from the language arts curriculum should be utilized as participants learn new science terms
  • assist participants to strengthen their metacognitive skills of reflection and analysis. Do not assume that implicit in the teaching of the professional development session is sufficient. Instead, teach metacognitive strategies explicitly to promote participants' awareness of their own learning, set their own learning goals, and become self-assessors of their progress
  • achieving science literacy may be most easily achieved within an inquiry-based, materials-centered classroom. Realize that many teachers still teach science from a textbook and abandoning this teacher-centered approach may not be comfortable. Teachers using a textbook-centered program (focus is on reading content as the only literacy connection) will have to find ways to broaden the literacy opportunities for their students. Strategies such as reciprocal teaching, science-fact-triangle, guided imagery, journal writing, creative writing, and structured-note-taking are recommended in chapter 8 of Thier and Daviss' book
  • the authors of the modules recommend personalization and regionalization are considered when delivering the professional development session. In other words, tailor the content and applications to be relevant to your locale. Incorporating media (for example, reports from the local newspaper) incorporates a literacy connection and assists participants to do likewise in their classrooms


American Association for the Advancement of Science. (1989). Science for all Americans: Project 2061. New York: Oxford University Press.

Bybee, R. W. (1997). Achieving scientific literacy from purposes to practices. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

National Research Council. (1996). National science education standards. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Their, M. & Daviss, B. (2002). The new science literacy: Using language skills to help students learn science. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Indicators of Scientific Literacy
Chapter 7 from the National Science Foundation's Science and Engineering Indicators 2006; covers science and technology: public attitudes and understanding

Importance of Scientific Literacy
Chapter 7 from the National Science Foundation's Science and Engineering Indicators 2004; covers science and technology: public attitudes and understanding

21st Century Skills Scientific Literacy
Defines scientific literacy, contains a bibliography for more information on scientific literacy and offers indicators of scientific literate students

A Parent's Guide to Raising Scientifically Literate Children
Suggestions from the National Education Association for parents to encourage children to learn and enjoy science, including what to do if parents cannot answer children's questions, links to resources, and suggested books.

Foundation for Scientific Literacy
Includes links to science in the news and other resources (projects and newsletter) to promote science and scientific literacy in popular culture

American Scientist Online
An article from The American Scientist journal on-line - defines scientific literacy and discusses the importance of a scientifically literate population and includes related links of interest

21st Century Scientist,903,NA.html
The Nuffield Curriculum Centre (Great Britain) offers its definition of scientific literacy and gives lists of "ideas about science" and "science explanations"

Scientific Literacy and National Security
The author of this article elaborates on his opening statement: "Scientific illiteracy has harmful implications not just for individuals, but it may also be hazardous to our national security."

NASA Library bibliography of scientific literacy
Compilation of articles, books, and Internet resources on scientific literacy from NASA

National Science Teachers Association
Articles found on NSTA website:

  • "Reading, Writing and Comprehending" George T. Martin, Science Teacher, October 2002, pp. 56 - 59
  • "Capitalizing on Literacy Connections" Karen Worth, Robin Moriarty and Jeff Winokur, February 2004, pp. 35 - 39
  • "Unlocking Reading Comprehension With Key Science Inquiry Skills" Roxanne Greitz Miller, Science Scope, September 2006, pp. 30 - 33
  • "Using Interactive Notebooks for Inquiry-Based Science" Robert Chesbro, Science Scope, April/May 2006, pp. 30 - 34
  • "Integrating Reading With Science" William G. Holiday, Science Scope, October 1999, pp. 12 - 13
  • "Integrating Writing With Science" William G. Holiday, Science Scope, September 2000, pp. 72 - 74
  • "Making Thinking Visible" Roxanne Greitz Miller and Robert C. Calfee, Science and Children, November/December 2004, pp. 20 - 25
  • "Mission Possible: Students Reading in the Science Classroom" Maida A. Finch, Science Scope, January 2003, pp. 47 - 49
  • "Reading Your Way to Scientific Literacy" Elena Levine, Journal of College Teaching, Volume XXXI, Number 2, pp. 122 - 125
  • "Science in Any Language" Laurie E. Hansen, Science and Children, November/December 2003, pp. 35 - 39
  • "Teaming Up for Science & Reading Success" William G. Holiday, Science and Children, May 2003, pp. 38 - 40