Kristy Turner explains why science teachers should help develop student literacy

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The media would have it that we are suffering from a kind of literacy crisis – a quick search brings up many reports on the relative weaknesses of young people in the UK. Indeed, data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development quoted in a report by the Literacy Trust states that the UK is the only economically developed country where 16 to 24-year-olds have the lowest literacy skills of any age group in society. 

As educators in science we have our part to play in securing good literacy skills in the young people passing through our classrooms and lecture theatres. Literacy is so much more than the mere secretarial processes involved in spelling, punctuation and grammar, which can be easily mimicked by a computer spellchecker. Excellent literacy lies at the heart of good science communication and we should not leave it solely to English teachers.

Writing to the formula

We educate young minds in an assessment culture, where students concentrate their efforts on exam technique. The scientific concepts are important but at the front of their minds is using the correct words, or those words desired by their examiners, to describe the science. Exam technique is a double edged sword. In some ways the focus on correct wording can be useful, we have all been faced with the student who declares ‘but you know what I mean…’ when challenging a response that they feel answers the question but does not gain credit. Until students become confident in their use of scientific language and can make links across topic areas then they find it difficult to write good answers. 

The shortcut to success in examinations is to learn mark scheme answers. In reality, this is a waste of brain space but for many students it serves a purpose, gains them the grade they require and they move on. 

A big problem with exams and exam technique is that they limit the amount of writing that students do. I am ashamed to say that I often repeat to my students that they need to use better quality words and usually fewer of them. Even since before the advent of on screen marking, exams have been increasingly designed to make them easier to mark and this has inevitably meant shorter answers. Answering ‘six markers’ has become the biggest challenge in many GCSE courses and even these can be answered in a formulaic way.

How many opportunities are there to write at length in chemistry courses for 14-18 year-olds? Too few. Gone are the days of long experimental write-ups for homework with introduction, method, results, conclusion and evaluation, marked with a cursory tick and ‘good’ by the teacher. Even those longer pieces of work demanded by the controlled assessments of GCSE, are defined by such a strict set of criteria that they have become an exercise in box ticking. While our lives as teachers are controlled by the boundaries of the assessment, our ability to improve the writing style of our students will always be bound by the shackles of the limited time available to teach the syllabus and the motivation of our students. In short, if it isn't on the exam then it isn't always valued by students, their parents or even school management.

Where to start

So what can we do to play our part in improving literacy? What are we doing already? It is great to see so many science-focused communication prizes around, such as the Bill Bryson Prize, and in recent years there has been a renaissance in popular science writing. Reading about science has become much more mainstream, from books like ‘Why is snot green?' that engage younger readers, to ‘The Disappearing Spoon’ a book I have seen written about in many UCAS personal statements but never actually read myself. All university science courses contain some modules with transferable skills including extended writing, the production of conference level posters and presentations. Many of these also bear credit, making them valuable in the eyes of the students. 

I fear it is in schools where teachers really need to step up to the mark and increase the amount of extended reading and writing in our courses. 

We will never get away from the shackles of the assessment, but time spent on enhancing our students’ literacy can only be beneficial in the long term.

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