What is scientific literacy?

Scientific literacy is a term that is incredibly hard to define. With existing tension between primary science and other National Curriculum subjects, the need to ensure there is a clear vision of what scientific literacy entails in the primary classroom is needed now more than ever. McGregor and Kearton (2010) commented on the existing international discussions regarding the importance of scientific literacy and its positive impact on national economies.

I believe that scientific literacy at primary school is aligned with developing a society of citizens who are well versed and literate across the science disciplines. There are seven key concepts that frame scientific literacy; content knowledge, attitudes and values, citizenship and society, the media, literacy and contextualised science. 


From completing a review of key literature on scientific literacy, I have developed some interesting conclusions, which identify clear recommendations for policy and practice. These recommendations are suggestions for improving the quality of science teaching and learning in the primary classroom, but do so in a way as not to restrict or prevent any further developments. They are therefore deliberately vague and are seen as ideas to complement the current National Curriculum (England), yet remain free from the restrictions such a curriculum can impose.


Recommendation 1: Develop an overview of the skills or attributes students should develop at both Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2.

Whilst a definitive list of skills is not required, this recommendation comes from the notion of developing a clear understanding of what scientific literacy looks like in classrooms across the primary phase. Although aspects such as inquiry-based learning are clearly identified through ‘working scientifically’ in the National Curriculum. It is suggested that schools consider what evidence there could be for each of the themes in this literature review. One suggestion is to develop a ‘success criteria’ list of skills or attributes applicable to primary science. Although this is partially covered by ‘working scientifically’ in the new national curriculum for England (DfE 2013), working scientifically does not cover all areas of scientific literacy discussed above.


Recommendation 2: Frame science learning using over-arching themes

The idea of using contexts is not new to primary school teachers. This recommendation suggests putting the science learning not just in context of what is immediately around the children, but considering the wider social issues, such as global warming. The use of over-arching themes or questions would ensure children are not learning science in isolation, but that there is wider engagement with society and the media and scientists.


Recommendation 3: Enhance the use of talk, reading and writing opportunities

It is important for students to read a wider range of books whilst they are learning how to decode words. In primary school, there is a tendency to rely upon books that are specifically aimed at slowly developing students’ word reading skill. This removes the excitement and engagement from reading, but ultimately, it is prohibiting students from accessing a wealth of knowledge. By allowing students access to a wide range of fiction and non-fiction stories focused around science, they are not only reading for pleasure, but developing more open minds to wider range of styles and will become more prepared for engaging with wider writing and reading styles in the classroom in later years.


Further Reading:

Bybee, R. & McCrae, B. (2011) Scientific Literacy and Student Attitudes: Perspectives from PISA 2006 science, International Journal of Science Education, 33(1), 7-26

DeBoer, G.E. (2000) Scientific Literacy: Another Look at Its Historical and Contemporary Meanings and Its Relationship to Science Education Reform, Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 37(6), 582-601

Harlen, W. (ed) (2010) Principles and big ideas of science education, Hatfield: Association for Science Education

Millar, R. and Osborne, J. F. (eds) (1998) Beyond 2000: Science Education for the Future, London: King’s College London, downloadable from http://www.kcl.ac.uk/content/1/c6/02/18/24/b2000.pdf