Literacy through science


Science teacher Euan Douglas discusses his work to develop students’ literacy through and for science.

Prior to this year, literacy had been one of those issues that, in all honesty, I had never truly understood. I knew it didn’t just mean English. I knew it was important. However, I wasn’t really clear how a science department should contribute to what was certainly a whole-school issue.

Two lightbulb moments last summer made me realise why literacy needed to become a core part of what we were doing within the science department, and also how we could start to achieve this.

My lightbulb moments

The first lightbulb went off when I was listening to Geoff Barton speak during the Teaching Leaders residential week last August. He spoke wonderfully about literacy and how it was the responsibility of every teacher, but also how it belonged to every subject. 

The main thing I learnt that day was that if the only people teaching our students to write and communicate are the English department, our students will be limited in the forms of writing and communication they have experienced. 

Scientific writing and communication have different conventions and aims, so if we are going to get students to operate as scientists (as the subject-specific Ofsted criteria for “outstanding” describes), then they need to develop this skill. Failing to achieve this will also set our students up for a tougher experience at A level and beyond.

On returning to school, my new-found passion (as it was fast becoming) for literacy in science was further reinforced by the second lightbulb moment. Reading through a controlled assessment from a student who is expecting to achieve three A* grades in science, I noticed that the method for his experiment was written up like a descriptive essay. 

My first thought was: “Who taught him to write like that?” Surely a top science student like this would know to write a method as a set of simple bullet points? Then I realised, no-one had taught him. He was writing in the only way and style he knew, – one which was just not appropriate for the task.

A changing landscape

Our school is certainly not be alone in having a whole-school push on literacy at the moment, probably in response to the more challenging exams being set at GCSE. Looking back just a few years shows how rapid this change has been in science, and suggests why the student described above has found themselves in this position. 

When he was in year 7 and 8, the GCSE exams we were preparing students for were mostly multiple-choice questions. The exams he himself faced were a mixture of short and extended answers. Clearly the literacy demands have increased hugely in this short time, a change which an all-boys school (except for our current year 7) with a high proportion of English as an additional language students is finding significant.

This shows the two sides to the literacy problem I now realised our department faced. On the one hand we needed to catch-up on and fix the neglected skills of our current key stage 4 students to enable them to access and be successful in their GCSE exams. At the same time we needed to look at our key stage 3 programme to make the changes necessary to avoid this happening every year. 

The first thing that needed to happen was to change people’s mindsets. The department, staff and students had to realise that there needed to be a new emphasis and expectation on literacy. Being part of such a positive and learning-focused team made this stage straightforward, and we could start to look at what practical steps could be taken to help achieve our twin goals.

Accessing GCSE exams

I analysed a series of past exam papers for biology, chemistry and physics from core and additional science. I was looking at the command words used in these exams, and how they varied between foundation and higher papers, and also if there were differences between the three sciences. 

From this I produced “Wordles” as a way of showing the department the most common command words used. We realised that not all of these were being used in lessons and our internal assessments. We now incorporate these command words into our learning outcomes each and every lesson, providing a daily opportunity to discuss their meaning and how to respond to them. 

I also produced a guide for the five most common command words to show students what they meant and how to respond to them. This was produced with the help of our school’s literacy co-ordinator and it has now been included in student handbooks for next year so that it can be used across the school.

Literacy at key stage 3

The new emphasis in recent years on enquiry within science has started the process of students operating as scientists more realistically. By getting them to not just think and act, but also to communicate as scientists has brought literacy skills to the fore in our key stage 3 lessons.

We ask students to consider how a scientist would discuss what they have done, how a scientist would write about what they have seen and so on. With the use of a literacy mat, which we wrote ourselves, students are now supported much more effectively in their writing.

The mats provide reminders on style of writing, sentence starters and so on for the different types of writing they use in science lessons (explaining things, planning experiments, making conclusions, justifying decisions and so on). We have also brought in writing frames that allow students to write-up their practical investigations in the same format as the GCSE controlled assessments. 

Sharing our learning

While it would not be accurate to say that practice within the department is fully developed and consistent at this stage, the progress we have made in just a few months has been significant. My role has been to keep the message consistent and clear, and that has meant keeping literacy within the teaching and learning conversations.

One way of doing this has been to spread the message beyond my own department, so that science colleagues see the importance of it and the progress we are making. This has included talking about literacy at local TeachMeets, having it as a focus in my Teaching Leaders Impact Initiative, and speaking at our weekly whole-school teaching and learning briefings.

Having other schools contact us to see what we have done and brought in has also given the team confidence that we are on the right track with this difficult area of teaching.

The results so far

There is plenty of progress still to make as a department, and measuring the final impact at this early stage is difficult, but a look through exercise books and controlled assessments certainly shows that the students’ skills have developed markedly during the year.

My advice to other middle leaders in a similar position is:

  • Do not ignore the importance of literacy in your subject area. Forget literacy as just being about writing and see it as communication – it will be much clearer to teachers in your subject what it then needs to look like in lessons and having that clarity in your vision makes other changes much easier.

  • Do not expect too many quick wins in this area, but take every opportunity to remind colleagues and students why it is important, and tell them where you can see that they are improving.

  • Make key stage 3 assessment as useful in preparing students for key stage 4 as possible. Develop writing frames and other resources to support students as they learn these skills.

  • To prepare students for tougher GCSE exams, analyse past papers for command words, then use them in lessons as lesson outcomes, teach their meanings, and use them in all internal assessments.

  • Euan Douglas is second in science at St George Catholic VA College in Southampton.

Teaching Leaders
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