Relationship between childrens literacy and science skills

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Since being introduced in the 1990's the Frameworks for teaching literacy and mathematics have increased standards in these subjects significantly, DCFS (2009). However this has meant that the teaching of literacy had become isolated and has not been used effectively in cross-curricular scenarios. The National Curriculum Council, DFEE (1990) stated that some aspects of the curriculum were explicit and yet they permeated all the separate areas of the curriculum. Following the Rose review, and the consequent changes being made to the curriculum, teachers will be awarded the flexibility to teach these essential skills in the context of other subjects.

So what do children develop first, literacy or scientific skills?

The Oxford English Dictionary (2009) defines literacy as the ability to read and write, in the curriculum we also include the ability to speak and listen to effectively communicate.

Speaking and listening are the first language skills that children acquire and literacy skills are held in high regard throughout education and life, with many children being taught to read and write before other skills when they start to attend school.

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The definition of science is slightly more complicated than that of literacy, being the study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment. The Oxford English Dictionary (2009). From this definition we can suggest that children are developing their scientific skills from birth, as they gradually piece together the way that their world works around them. For example, a young child could watch a beetle for a few minutes and begin to form ideas around the observations that they have seen.

It is important for children to develop their knowledge and attainment in both literacy and science, but is there a relationship between these very separate subjects?

Newton and Newton (1998 p.102) state that in the programme of study for science it is a requirement for pupils to be taught to express themselves and communicate using both speech and writing, to be able to use scientific vocabulary appropriately and to present information in a wide variety of ways, so we can already see that science and literacy are tied together, but how important is a child's attainment in literacy in their development of scientific knowledge and ability?

When children enter the world of scientific notions they are entering a foreign world full of strange devices, bizarre objects, outlandish ideas and words that have no meaning. Teachers have to be able convey meaning to all of these things, especially to translate the scientific language into one that children can understand. Wellington and Osborne (2009 p.17) note that although technical language and vocabulary used in science causes problems for learners, teachers should also be aware that common words are also sometimes poorly understood by the children, the consequence of this is that when teachers try to translate the technical words, the children still may not be able to access the meaning. This highlights the need for children to have a good knowledge of literacy and range of vocabulary in order to be able to learn new words and their meanings. Newton and Newton (1998 p.102) made the observation that communication between children and teachers is a valuable activity because everybody involved can learn something from it. In the primary classroom the emphasis is placed on the written side of literacy, however teachers learn more about what the pupils are thinking through oral communication and children learn more from oral communication and discussion with the teacher and the other children in the class. Feasey (1999 p.v) also believes that although focus is put on written communication, the importance of spoken word should not be underestimated as it is key to both literacy and science. She also notes that children speak before they write, not just in terms of skills acquired as mentioned before, but children often vocalise their ideas, rehearsing and rephrasing them before putting them down on either paper or computer.

This is true across all subjects in the primary curriculum, so what about in science specifically? Frost (1999 p.9) remarks that scientists need to communicate their findings and ideas, measure, handle information. In quintessence, generally process information. Children working as young scientists need to do similar things, as they work in the classroom they write, create and read graphs, make measurements and communicate their findings. These young scientists also process information. In order to make this effective, the children need to be able to communicate in written and spoken ways but also to be able to access others ideas through written or spoken forms. Glynn and Muth (1994) draw our attention to the idea that the ability to learn from printed text is a mark of independence as a literate person. It is this ability that signifies that a person is able to think critically and can draw conclusions from the information that has been offered. Feasey (1999 p.iv) states that society needs literate and scientifically literate people, as when the two skills are combined it enables people to engage and contribute to science and the progression that follows in an ever-changing world.

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Children who are literate have the tools with which they can think and work in science as well as communicate their scientific ideas to others. Hollins and Whitby (1999 p.3) and Feasey (1999 p.iv) go on to say that science and literacy are inextricably linked and this link works both ways with science giving a real context for children to practice and develop their literacy skills, whilst literacy gives the children a way to access the weird and wonderful world of science.

Children who do not have a high level of personal literacy will certainly find it more difficult for them to engage in scientific learning and will have many more hurdles to overcome in order to be able to access the scientific knowledge that is on offer. In 2008 it was reported that 76,000 children in the UK are diagnosed with dyslexia and that up to 2 million children in the UK may have dyslexic-type learning difficulties, Curtis (2008). Dyslexia is a learning difficulty that mainly affects the ability to comprehend the written word and must therefore have an impact on the child's learning in other subject areas such as science.

Peer and Reid (2001 p.23) recognise that pupils with dyslexia can do well in science. It is, or should be, a practical subject and literacy skills are not a main focus, with more concise answers being used than long and descriptive pieces. This can allow those pupils who find it a struggle to write lengthy passages of text to be able to communicate their ideas without being penalised for short answers. Science also utilises a wide range of ways to communicate written ideas, from the use of tables to graphs and diagrams. Often those children who have severe difficulties with reading and writing have specific adult help to read or scribe for them, or they utilise computer programmes and other ICT to record their answers. In the case of these individuals, their level of literacy could hold them back in science without the correct level of help for each child. However it also shows that with the appropriate help a child may struggle at literacy based tasks, but could achieve well at scientific based work.

As referred to earlier, science and literacy have a two way link, so for those children with dyslexia or those who sometimes struggle with literacy based tasks or even those who don't find it difficult, how can science and scientific activities help them develop and progress their literacy skills?

Wellington and Osborne (2009 p. 59) inform us that there are many ways to encourage reading in science by using the scientific topic as a stimulus for children to read and research information on said topic. For those who find reading difficult, non-fiction books can be straight forward and to the point, ensuring that information can be gained easily, reinforcing the idea that reading is a useful tool. Many children's non-fiction texts, such as those published by Dorling Kindersley, place the text in small chunks around the page, making reading and finding information simpler for the reader. It is not just non-fiction texts that can be used with science, but the use of fiction texts can provide opportunities to make connections between what they are learning in science to the world that they live in. Ward et al (2008 p.94) believe that fiction texts can act as a vehicle to link previously learnt knowledge with new ideas. Fiction stories and poetry can be used as a motivation to do science by providing a problem that a character has that the children need to help solve. Ward et al go on to say that the use of a story as a stimulus tend to disappear in KS2, this may be for several reasons, many stories aimed at KS2 children are longer in length and the reading age is more difficult and being able to find a story that suits the topic may be more difficult. This can easily be overcome by using story books from younger years, or short extracts from longer texts. It is easy to forget that KS2 children are still children and many of them still enjoy reading books that are aimed at a younger age group than themselves. However it is at KS2, when the scientific concepts that are being learnt become more abstract and harder to relate to, that children need to link these new concepts with their real life experiences and fiction text can help with this. The National Curriculum, DFES (2003) encourages teachers to use flexible and inspired ways of teaching science, as science is about thinking creatively and imaginatively to try and explain how the things around us work. However Ward et al (2008 p.95) warn us that what ever fiction text is chosen it is important to remember not to get carried away with the text and literacy aspects, if the lesson is focusing on the scientific side.

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In both KS1 and KS2 role play is an important aspect of literacy and encourages speaking and listening. The use of role play in science can help with the explanation of abstract concepts such as transitions between solids, liquids and gases. Role play and labels can also be used to give "jobs" to individuals in groups when performing and investigation to ensure that the different aspects of the investigation are shared and performed by every member of the group at some point or another. Some groups may choose to use role play as a medium to share their investigation and their findings from it.

Games that can be played in science can also help further develop literacy skills as they give a range of new learning opportunities. Dweck (1999) recognises that enjoyment and motivation have been linked to increases in learning and attainment, so by playing carefully selected games, children can increase both their knowledge in science but also in literacy. Some games can be classed as vocabulary games such as subject specific bingo, true/false cards, hang-man, matching pairs or scattergories, and focus on ensuring that the children have the correct knowledge of the meaning of scientific terms and help them to become more familiar with them. Wellington and Osborne (2009 p.137) claim that by playing games like these, scientific words can become more natural for children to use in their work and in conversation. Ward et al (2008 p.127) state that the development of language is central to learning science, and that anything that helps should be encouraged. Games like those outlined above are all language games and can be used as starters to a topic, revision games, or as a fun way of assessing how the pupils are coping with the scientific vocabulary that has been recently introduced. Ward et al (2008 p.127) do however alert teachers to the fact that play and games used purely to make the lesson more interesting will not produce useful results. Play and games need to be carefully planned with a clear outcome. Wellington and Osborne (2009 p.137) also discuss this point and conclude that as long as games are well planned and have a strong purpose, which in this case is to become familiar with scientific terminology and ways to communicate what they mean, then they will become a valuable tool within the classroom.

If there is an element of challenge, competition or team work involved in the use of games in the classroom and a clear reason for playing these games, then the children will increase their interest in the game and have more involvement in it. Ward et al (2008 p.127) highlight that games that encourage children to improve on their past performance, or to use prior knowledge, then the children will be keen to learn new vocabulary and concepts in order to get better at the game. This gives the learners an incentive to learn that is relevant to them, further encouraging them to learn.

Wellington and Osborne (2009 p.137) note that a well devised game can allow pupils an opportunity to interact with and exchange scientific terms, and aid in the development of confidence of using these terms.

Confidence in communication is vital for scientists since their results and theories need to be shared with other scientists, and conveyed to members of the public through the media. The National Curriculum Council, DFEE(1990) outlined six core skills that are infused into all subjects, these were: numeracy; problem solving; study; social; communication and information technology. It is clear that these six core skills fit well into the subject of science, however in the context of the link between science and literacy, communication and information technology skills are particularly pertinent. Newton and Newton (1998 p.101) discuss that these skills can be learnt independently, but that they need to be interpreted within the context of the science curriculum, they need to be given a reason to learnt in order for children to be able to understand why they need those skills. Both adult scientists and young scientists use a wide range of communication skills in order to share their ideas with one another. The types of communication can be loosely grouped, as outlined in Newton and Newton (1998 p.103), as: oral communication, discussions, oral presentations, tape recorded accounts; written communication, free writing, structured worksheets or writing, sequenced recollections of investigations; graphical communication, pictures, diagrams, graphs, charts, tables, cartoon strips ; other forms of communication, photography, video and audio recordings, dramatic presentations, model making, IT. All of these types of communication can help in the development of literacy skills in the context of science, but it is up to the teacher to be able to decide which of these types of activity are suitably matched to the scientific activity that is being done. By covering an array of communication methods and styles, children will eventually be able to decide for themselves which method is the most effective at communicating the particular idea that they want to share.

Like most forms of communication, the written methods of communication are often not a problem for children within the science lesson, if it is the child that is communicating their idea. Like the link between science and literacy, communication is also a two way thing. We have already discussed the types of reading that can occur in science by using fiction and non-fiction texts as starting points and as an anchor to which children can attach the new concepts being learnt to their real world experiences. However, these are aimed specifically at children and are not often scientific texts; we need to be able to teach children to read scientific texts that are featured in the media that surrounds us. Wellington and Osborne (2009 p.41) inform us that scientific vocabulary is not easy and very often scientific texts are aimed at a high reading age whilst being less engaging for most readers than other matter. But yet children need to be able to have the skills that allow them to read information presented to them, in a critical manner so that they can decide for themselves whether to believe what has been offered to them or not. The concept of bias and inaccurate writing and being able to distinguish between reputable sources of information is an important skill for children to learn, and the context of science is a good place to relate it to the real world.

Keys (1987 p.80) realised that whilst performing science related activities, children must use all their senses to promote and communicate their skills and knowledge learnt, and that these skills contribute to the development of a scientist but also of the vocabulary and reading and writing skills necessary for a person to become literate.

Whilst reading a story to a class of children, the teacher often pauses to ask the children to predict what they think will happen next. In science, children are asked to predict what they think will happen at the end of their investigation. Children are asked to analyse stories that they have read and they are asked to analyse results from observations or investigations. They are asked to tell a story from their imagination and they are asked to tell the story of their investigation. Science and literacy are inextricably linked together.

Feasey (1999 p.v) notes that :

"Science benefits from a sound literacy base: equally literacy benefits from being used and developed in a whole range of interesting and challenging contexts within both formal and informal education."

All children grow up. Some grow up to be research scientists on the cutting edge of scientific breakthroughs. Some grow up to use science everyday in their jobs. Some grow up and read the paper whilst drinking their coffee before going to work and read about science. Others just watch it on the news. Some grow up and, even though they don't "do" science, they watch documentaries and have an interest in science. Some just sit and wonder about how the world and everything in it works.

As teachers we need to equip these children to be able to become any one of the above, the one that they choose. We do this by ensuring that they are confident in science, by linking science and literacy together to ensure that something new and scary is accompanied with something friendly and well known, whether that new idea is a scientific one or literacy based one.

Some children struggle with literacy based tasks and by using science as a vehicle they can develop those skills and use the confidence they have in science to transplant that confidence into literacy skills. Just as important is the use of science within the english lesson where science is a stimulus, much like the stories mentioned earlier were a stimulus for the science lesson.

I do not believe that there is a relationship between children's development and attainment of literacy and their learning in science and science related activities. I believe that a child would need to have some level of understanding in literacy in order to be able to understand and learn scientific concepts, but that level does not have to be an average one for that child's age. Science and literacy can springboard from each other, and the proposed Curriculum (as of 2009) will enable teachers to link subjects like these, together with more ease. But, without literacy we would not have science, for we would have no way of communicating our ideas to one another. As Osborne (2002 p.207) says;

"Almost all of what we customarily call 'knowledge' is language, which means that the key to understanding a subject is to understand its language."

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