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Reading & Writing in the Disciplines

Big Ideas in Literacy – Science


Disciplinary literacy in science is challenging and highly rewarding. It involves more than what we traditionally think of as reading and writing, encompassing interpreting graphs, following evidence presented in a video, understanding how teams work, judging the quality of an online source of information, writing a blog or contributing to a shared digital document, and understanding the components of a formal research report. Helping your students gain science literacy skills opens a universe of discovery and hones habits of mind to serve them a lifetime, whether or not they choose a science-related career.

The goal of these units on disciplinary literacy in science is to sample some frameworks and strategies for developing science literacy. Students and instructors can benefit from an approach that combines literacy practices with discipline-specific content. The videos that accompany and complement these units show how practicing classroom teachers are taking a variety of creative approaches to disciplinary literacy through modeling, mentoring, group work, and iterative inquiry. Acquiring literacy is the key to student autonomy and self-directed learning. We hope that you will identify with these inspiring colleagues and students and see how engaging and rewarding it can be to combine literacy and content instruction.

Video and Reflection: Watch Teaching Content Through Literacy to see how an 8th-grade science teacher has embraced literacy when teaching science content and has enjoyed collaborating with colleagues in language arts. You may want to take notes on the questions below.

  • Before you watch: Where do your students think the information in their science textbook comes from? What skills do you think students need to understand scientific content?
  • Watch the video: As you watch, consider how Ms. Gilbert helps students recognize various components of nonfiction text. What is the relative importance of graphics versus text in science?
  • Reflect: How similar to or different from your classroom teaching are the ideas in this video about teaching science content through literacy? How might you expand the ways in which you teach science content through literacy? How might you work with your colleagues in language arts and math?

In this introductory unit, we explore the most significant aspects of disciplinary literacy in science, informed by how practicing scientists read, write, and use inquiry constantly in their work. Unit 6 will focus on reading scientific content for the purpose of learning and inquiry and on strategies for developing reading skills in science. The focus of Unit 7 shifts to writing in science, which includes text and graphical means of conveying scientific findings and ideas. Unit 8 emphasizes how mutually supportive reading and writing are for developing literacy skills and the iterative interplay between reading and writing.


Science writing can be narrative in form, for example, it can be found in an online feature on the life of Madam Curie, a magazine article on the discovery of the structure of DNA, an episode of The Big Bang Theory, or a science fiction novel. However, core disciplinary writing in science is expository: a concise factual account with minimal narrative embellishment.

Reflect: One of the most popular and readable accounts of a scientific discovery is Jim Watson’s The Double Helix, which is available today in many editions, including this free online version. Think about how you might use Watson’s narrative account of the discovery of the structure of DNA in comparison to the brief technical report of the discovery.

Textbooks are probably the most commonly encountered expository writing, but they generally lack key elements of scientific writing.

Components of science literacy include:

  • Highly specialized technical vocabulary
  • The use of special characters, symbols, and mathematical representations
  • A strong affinity for quantitative evidence and datasets that have statistical power, i.e., large numbers of observations and measurements
  • An emphasis on graphical representations of data
  • A standard of reproducibility of results by independent researchers
  • A standard of drawing on multiple independent lines of evidence to support conclusions
  • A special emphasis on parsimonious interpretation of results aimed at persuasion by overwhelming evidence and flawless logic, rather than argumentation or appeal to desirable outcomes
  • Nearly universal accepted standards for the organization and components of scientific reports
  • Crediting the specific contributions of various researchers and authors
  • Careful referencing of previous work

Since most textbooks are overstuffed with factual content, they give short shrift to the process of science and how we come to know the facts that are presented. One essential feature that textbooks do share with most other forms of science writing is a highly integrated strategy of combining visual information with textual information. Textbooks have their place in learning science, and students can benefit tremendously from learning to be critical, inquiring textbook readers.

Video and Reflection: Watch Reading and Writing Scientific Abstracts to see how a 12th-grade science teacher emphasizes reading and writing in science for college preparation—in this case focusing on short and rigorous scientific abstracts. You may want to take notes on the questions below.

  • Before you watch: What are the main components of a scientific summary abstract? What challenges would your students face in writing a scientific abstract?
  • Watch the video: As you watch the video, consider why Ms. Tran is having her students read and write scientific abstracts. What are the four parts of an abstract?
  • Apply: Using the four parts of an abstract, write a concise summary of this video:
    • Does the video work as the subject of a scientific abstract? Does the content in the video contain all the elements you need to write an abstract?
    • Find two to four examples of scientific abstracts and identify the four parts of the abstract. You are probably familiar with readily available online sources of scientific research reports. (An example is PubMed for life sciences.)
    • Do all of the abstracts have all four parts?


There is a prevalent stereotype of the scientist as loner, working monk-like in the lab or at the computer, occasionally crying “Eureka!” upon making a discovery. Indeed, scientists want to make discoveries, love to solve problems, and are obsessed with finding answers; however, it’s generally the questions that set them on fire. Scientists want to generate ever-sharper questions about the natural world.

The key to this perpetual process of inquiry is the scientific community, from the huge body of published science generated by thousands of labs worldwide, to the particular research community that a given scientist associates with, to his or her coworkers and teammates focused on very specific scientific problems. Effective communication is central to progress in science. Of course, individual scientists vary greatly in their social and communication skills, but they would all agree that communication is central—this means working on skills for speaking and listening as well as reading and writing, making a poster and visiting a colleague’s poster, and interacting collegially in all sorts of large and small meetings.

Besides curiosity and inquiry, the most important habit of mind for professional scientists is being skeptical. Scientists want to see the flaw in their reasoning before their colleagues do. They want their data and conclusions to be beyond reproach, and so a lot of science communication involves asking questions of their own work as well as trying to poke holes in the evidence, interpretations, and conclusions of others. The entire scientific community depends on the integrity of the scientific literature; errors and misinterpretations are anathema.

The habit of being highly skeptical and questioning can make scientific discourse seem adversarial. The scientific literature is voluminous, with hundreds of research reports from thousands of labs published every month. Scientists strive for complete clarity in their writing, but also strive to be as brief and concise as possible. This can make expository science writing seem terse, dense, and often dry.

As scientists read, they are constantly asking questions and marking up their reading with notes, questions, underlines and highlights. They consider, How does this relate to what I already know? How does it relate to my own research? How does it change my thinking? It is very rare for a scientist to read a research article in order, from beginning to end.

Examples of how a scientist might read:

  • Choose a research paper to read based on title
  • Read the abstract and find it interesting and relevant
  • Go to the end of the paper to judge how strong the conclusions are
  • Flip through the figures (tables, graphs, illustrations, photos) in the paper to get a sense of the data presented
  • Identify a key figure, read the legend, and make judgments on power and accuracy of the data
  • Return to the abstract and make some notes
  • Read the introduction, check a reference at end of paper, and retrieve that related paper
  • If experimental methods are unfamiliar or questionable, read in detail and check related references
  • They pay special attention and take notes on what the authors should do next, are saying they will do, and likely will actually do

Video: Watch Thinking and Communicating Like a Biologist to see how an 11th-grade science teacher helps students break a technical paper into manageable chunks, work on difficult vocabulary based on unfamiliar concepts, and design their own experiments. You may want to take notes on the questions below.

  • Before you watch:  What are the main barriers to having your students read a scientific paper? How might reading scientific papers help students design good experiments? What’s the role of peer interactions in science?
  • Watch the video: As you watch, notice the various peer interactions. How are the students making use of a graphic tool to design their experiments?
  • Apply: Write a short paragraph on how you would apply the box diagram concept to help your students read a scientific paper rather than design an experiment.



Science is a continual process of inquiry into how natural systems work, from how subatomic particles behave, to the chemical code for hereditary information, to the mechanisms of plate tectonics that shape Earth’s continents, to the composition of comets. The path of inquiry is not straight, and it never ends; however, along the way it does yield practical benefits, such as nuclear power, new medicines, weather prediction, and space travel. Therefore, whether you are a student or a professional, inquiry is the main purpose of reading in science. Scientists of course read to learn and understand what their colleagues and predecessors have discovered. Perhaps less appreciated is that they read to be stimulated to ask fresh questions and explore new avenues for research.

The focus on inquiry in science is a huge benefit for instruction in disciplinary literacy because pedagogical inquiry can be based directly on the professional methods and language of scientific inquiry. Teachers should be prepared to provide students with useful framing questions, while students need to be encouraged to formulate their own questions and to learn how to break big questions into smaller actionable questions. They also need to learn to be critical of the quality of their own questions while recognizing the role of different types of questions for different aspects of scientific inquiry.

Reflect: Think about ways to help students be critical and skeptical without being criticizing, harsh, or argumentative. What approaches have you used in the past to foster constructive criticism and pointed dialogue while damping down heated arguments? Have you managed the composition of teams and work groups with individual student temperaments in mind?


Students have a lot of prior knowledge and commonsense reasoning about how the natural world works. After all, they’ve felt gravity, floated in the water, weathered the seasons, and bent their limbs throughout their lives. Prior knowledge is an important platform for disciplinary learning, but along with useful intuitions come misconceptions. When it comes to underlying mechanisms, or to probing things that are invisible to direct human experience, prior knowledge, intuition, and common sense can let us down. In many respects, science is a tool that humans have invented to protect us from our flawed intuitions.

For this reason, the discipline of science overwhelmingly focuses on evidence; in the case of experimental science, this is typically just called “data.” It doesn’t end with data, since analyzing and interpreting data is essential to drawing useful conclusions. The centrality of evidence to scientific literacy is very well represented in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), which emphasize literacy practices in science focused on the identification, interpretation, and articulation of evidence for a scientific claim. In the school setting, evidence might come from myriad sources: reading research reports, articles, charts, posters, advertisements, exhibits, hands-on activities, lab or field experiments, and measurements. Identification of evidence involves observation, description, and illustration.

Video: Watch Supporting Claims with Evidence and Reasoning to see how a 10th-grade chemistry teacher motivates student lab work with a guiding question and works with students to apply the standards for a strong claim. You may want to take notes on the questions below.

  • Before you watch: What do you typically tell your students about the purpose of a lab? Do you usually have students pool their results, or just work with their own data?
  • Watch the video: As you watch, consider what kind of statements are claims, and how long should they be. How are the students interacting, helping, and challenging each other?
  • Reflect: How often do you have students check the results they’ve obtained with published results from the scientific literature?



The Next Generation Science Standards emphasize the relationship between understanding science practices and content knowledge and support a literacy approach to teaching science content. Appendix M of the NGSS states that “Literacy skills are critical to building knowledge in science.” In concert with the CCSS, the NGSS highlights:

  • Asking questions and defining problems
  • Developing and using models
  • Planning and carrying out investigations
  • Analyzing and interpreting data
  • Using mathematics and computational thinking
  • Constructing explanations and designing solutions
  • Engaging in argument from evidence
  • Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information

Writing and presenting information orally are key means for students to:

  • Assert and defend claims in science
  • Demonstrate what they know about a concept
  • Convey what they have experienced, imagined, thought, and learned

In addition to noting the importance of science-specific basic literacy practices, such as those listed above, NGSS notes that reading and writing in science also incorporate visual literacy. Students are often required to gain knowledge from elaborate diagrams and data that convey information and illustrate scientific concepts.

Relationship Between Scientific Graphics and Text Activity 
The following interactive activity provides a model for helping students develop their literacy in text structure, in particular the important relationship between graphic elements and text in expository science writing. The challenge is to read a graphic without explanatory text to gain an appreciation of the elements that need to be included for a graphic to be readable. An accompanying paragraph is used to then develop a sense of how graphics and text are complementary in science writing. Click here to begin.

Reflect: List two to three additional graphics that would help support the main text of the interactive. For example, would it be helpful to have a representation of the periodic table of the elements with the members of the platinum family highlighted? The graphic in the interactive lacked a figure legend. Generally speaking, a figure legend includes the title of the figure and a terse description meant to be the minimal amount of information necessary to read a figure, but not necessarily fully understand it. Consider writing a figure legend for the graphic that is 80 words or less.

Teachers take a variety of approaches with regards to incorporating and aligning instructional practice with standards like the Common Core and NGSS. Some teachers embrace the practice of making the standards explicit and transparent with their students and use the standards to help students track individual learning goals within the context of goals for the entire class.

Video and Reflection: Watch Creating a Classroom Culture as an example of how a 9th-grade social studies teacher makes extensive use of inquiry to break problems into component questions and explicitly ties learning goals to curriculum standards. You may want to take notes on the questions below.

  • Before you watch: How do you use student-generated questions in your teaching?
  • Watch the video: As you watch, notice and take notes on how students struggle and embrace the academic vocabulary of the standards.
  • Reflect: Identify two or more standards from the NGSS standards that you could map to specific learning goals with your students and develop strategies for working with students to tie standards to individual learning goals.



The workforce in the scientific disciplines, like many other professional fields, does not adequately reflect the ethnic and cultural diversity of the broader society. Especially at the highest management levels, women of all cultural backgrounds are underrepresented in science. Such circumstances means missed opportunities for diverse perspectives and creative thinking and a dearth of diverse professional role models for students of varying backgrounds.

It is challenging to delineate specific strategies that are effective for particular populations; however, an instructor can clearly strive to incorporate culturally responsive teaching and to create a learning atmosphere that is open and inviting to students of many different backgrounds. Fortunately, many inquiry- and student-centered learning practices are beneficial to students of many stripes; examples include finding ways to make scientific problem solving local (researching local environmental issues), personalizing instruction (students pursue topics or projects they find relevant), and providing individualized coaching and learning goals. A key aspect of advanced training in science is mentoring, where more experienced researchers team up with students and younger professionals and, primarily through informal discussion, help them to think about questions and experiments and coach them in writing and giving presentations. The teacher as coach and mentor can be very encouraging in a classroom, as can peer mentoring.

Explore: Try to identify local professionals with diverse backgrounds who can visit your class, be an interview subject, or advise on projects.

One of the goals of disciplinary literacy is for students to learn the forms and norms of science communication. This means that whatever their background, they need help in acquiring the requisite vocabulary and understanding and then formulating for themselves complex textual structures. But teachers have to help students find their way to the door, otherwise they never have a chance to step in and contribute.

Students bring a variety of understandings about the world that can be used either as a bridge into science concepts or as the subject of scientific study in its own right. Asking questions, listening to students, and believing that what they are interested in has academic value help establish a pathway into science discourse. These practices also help establish positive relationships among the teacher and students, another important way to begin creating equity and engagement in reading and writing in science.

Reflect: You may have visually impaired students in your school or classroom. Consider asking your students to think about how challenging it would be for a visually impaired student to interpret the data in a graph. Ask them to think about accommodations and technology that could be helpful. In part, such inquiry may help students understand how important graphical literacy is to science.


Public perceptions of scientists are generally favorable, while public attitudes toward the applications of science are more mixed. Most people recognize that science and technology drive modern economies and provide jobs. At the same time, there is widespread cultural aversion to aspects of the scientific method and to the societal implications of particular scientific findings. Students today are growing up in a world where science is firmly established in the culture and economy, and where denial of science is also pugnaciously present. Among the many prominent examples of science denial are evolution; climate change; vaccines; and health hazards like smoking, gun control, and aspects of industrial regulation. Tone can be very important, including not overstepping the bounds of the realm of science, which should stay focused on evidence and generating data. Science literacy educators arguably have the most important role to play in getting students to become comfortable with the norms of science and developing the habit of following the evidence, even when you they may fear where it will lead.

In addition to the very practical considerations and benefits relating to the conduct of scientific research and its fruits, there is a broader aspect of science and its role in our civilization. Science is a great cultural achievement that we all should be proud of; just as knowledge of art and literature should be part of every citizen’s cultural literacy, so should some of the best science stories. Clearly science is not the only lens to view our lives and to understand our world, but it is a rewarding and useful way. Science education should aim to develop students’ understanding of a set of big ideas in science, including both its limits and importance in society.


It is well established that scientific literacy is multiliteracy, as it clearly involves more than just reading and writing text. The publications of Newton (17th century) and Vesalius (16th century) included numerous graphics, illustrations, and other unusual textual features. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species published in 1859 famously contains a single but extremely influential figure, his sketch of an evolutionary tree. Graphics are so important to data representation in science that it would not be malpractice for a science instructor to spend the majority of his or her teaching on interpreting and making data graphics. However, to produce a final product in science, to make a fully supported scientific claim, will nearly always require supporting text and written or verbal communication of findings and conclusions.

Scientific literacy involves multiple literacy practices, including visual literacy (the composition and interpretation of graphs and charts); the use of specialized symbolic systems and mathematical and chemical formulas; and the specialized use of text, such as abstracts, figure legends, and changes in phraseology, depending on whether the writer is referring to results or interpretation of results. Even scientific note taking and recording of observations involve practicing specialized literacy skills.

The ubiquity of digital information technologies and networked computing has enriched and complicated the multiliteracy landscape. It is easier and faster than ever for scientists to share and communicate results, and scientists—having contributed to the invention and propagation of these tools—have heartily embraced their use.

For the purposes of literacy, it is useful to think of two categories of digital products:

  • Core information and productivity tools, such as spreadsheets; databases; graphic and animation software; interactive virtual research communities; digital publishing and archiving tools; and data sorting, analysis, and display utilities. Scientists make extensive use of these tools to handle and share data.
  • Multimedia, visualization, and communication tools, such as animations, websites, slide display programs, podcast and videocast programs, videos, and various forms of social media. Scientists also make extensive use of these tools but do not generally consider them to be core to data analysis; some scientists, however, may think of them as playing an important role in inquiry.

Many students are clearly attracted to the second category, while the first category is more integral to science as a discipline. Various media each have their own component literacies as well as certain strengths and weaknesses. Just as students need to understand that their scientific claims are not just a matter of opinion, not all media, uses of media, and combinations of media are equally valid or effective for a given purpose. Thus, there are challenges associated with evaluating, filtering, and establishing credibility.

Video and Reflection: Watch Blended Learning: Acquiring Digital Literacy Skills to see how a 9th grade English teacher makes extensive use of computers and shared documents to focus on careful annotation and editing.  You may want to take notes on the questions below.

  • Before you watch: List some ways that digital tools are different than traditional print materials. Do you think the differences are fundamental or mostly superficial? Do computers save time or just reorganize time?
  • Watch the video: As you watch, consider (a) whether the electronic formats are fostering more student peer interaction and (b) the ways in which computer use is changing the role of the teacher.
  • Reflect: What are the barriers in your class to making more effective use of digital productivity software?

Series Directory

Reading & Writing in the Disciplines


Produced by WGBH Educational Foundation. 2015.
  • Closed Captioning
  • ISBN: 1-57680-906-4