Science Literacy: Lessons from the First Generation

Science Literacy: Lessons from the First Generation


As a secondary science teacher or as an elementary teacher implementing science, we are constantly barraged with concepts intended to reform education and to improve the level of student learning. Yet, we often don't have access to the research which supports the concepts or adequate information to assess the legitimacy of the research claims. We do know that science literacy has been proclaimed the major concern in science education for a number of years and by a great many sources (for example, the National Science teacher's Association, NSTA). This paper will attempt to provide a brief overview of the concept of science literacy through its conceptual lineage and current research endeavors.

First Generation Literacy

All of the currently hotly discussed literacies (e.g., science, mathematics, computer) in education stem from the original term for the basic abilities to read, write, listen, and speak. Both the term, literacy, and the skills inherent in its meaning have changed throughout history and have varied through the context in which they were used. The terms, basic or functional literacy, have been used by Venezky (1990), who attempted to illuminate the complexities of definition through the existence of both various types and levels of literacy. Functional literacy is also the term used by the Literacy Volunteers of America (LVA), a group dedicated to eradicating illiteracy in the U. S. one adult at a time. LVA defines functional literacy as the ability of an individual to use reading, speaking, writing and computational skills in everyday life situations. Eradicating adult illiteracy is a large job, if one considers the statistics used by LVA (The National Adult Literacy Survey conducted by the U. S. Department of Education in 1993): 21 to 23 percent of the adult population (40 to 44 million people) in the U.S. are at the functionally illiterate level; another 25 to 28% of the adult population are considered to be barely functioning.

Both Venezky and the LVA were concerned with adult literacy, not the literacy of children or students. This is because literacy is considered in terms of abilities needed to function independently in society; e.g., voting, applying for jobs, reading a map, signing one's name. The ability to make informed societal and personal decisions is an implication of functional literacy. Literacy for societal reasons requires an assessment that occurs during the years after schooling has ended, when the adult attempts to take his/her place in society. In light of the fact that volunteer efforts by groups (such as the LVA and public libraries) to thwart functional illiteracy are reaching fewer than 10% of the population in need (from a survey by the Office of Technology Assessment in 1993)--coupled with the fact that the population is growing--the actual number of people needing literacy education continues to increase.

Whether these adults have forgotten what they learned in school or whether they never actually received the instruction necessary to sustain them through life--whatever the reason--the results are identical: We have not been meeting the needs of individuals or society in our current system/ methods of education.

Second Generation Literacy

It is reasonable to assume that the "functionally illiterate" population is also not literate in science; in fact, it is estimated that 90% of the population is not science literate (Kyle, 1995). Science literacy, also known as scientific literacy or (in the United Kingdom) the "public understanding of science," has been used as a term since the 1950s and is often credited to Paul Hurd (1958), who declared a crisis in education due to a "great discontinuity in scientific and social development" and a science curriculum "spread so thin over so many topics that students acquire only dribbles and dabbles of assorted information" (pp. 14-15). Domain literacies, such as science, could be considered as second generation literacies...the offspring of adult functional literacy.

Hurd's early definition of scientific literacy had emphasized "science and society," as opposed to many definitions of the day that emphasized the so-called "scientific method." Others saw scientific literacy only as the ability to be able to read and understand the science of popular media. The science and society theme continued to gain momentum until it became a part of the science-technology-society (STS) movement of the 1970s and 1980s. STS proponents advocated science education that was humanistic, value-laden, and relevant to personal, societal, and environmental concerns. The STS movement eventually evolved into advocacy of science education through a societal framework (DeBoer, 1991).

Throughout the recent period of science education, no definitions for science literacy have been agreed upon; thus, no generally-accepted basis for establishing policy, research, curriculum, and teaching exist. Graff (1987, pp. 3-4) stated three tasks required for the study and interpretation of literacy: 1) A consistent definition that serves over time and across space; 2) A set of techniques for communications and for decoding and reproducing written or printed materials; 3) the use of precise, historically specific materials and cultural contexts. The second task implies that literacy is a skill acquired over time and (conversely) forgotten over time. The third task in part reiterates the first; i.e., time and geographic location make the definition contextual, even though a "consistent" definition would imply generality rather than specificity.

For example, meeting a national goal becomes dependent upon a single, consistent definition. The National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996) now serve as national goals for science teaching in the United States. The Standards support the concept of science literacy and have defined it as the "knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity" (p. 22). Definition of specific abilities can be found in the "content standards.ˆ While considered a general definition, the NRC definition also became a limiting definition--limited because it did not consider the needs of the whole person and because it was dependent upon specific abilities which were not conceived from a science literacy perspective. "Despite the attention given to science literacy in the United States national standards for science education, the documents leave unanswered many of the questions for which teachers and curriculum developers must have answers" (Champagne & Kouba, 1997).

On the other hand, a definition designed for the global issue of science literacy--adapted from an earlier definition by Champagne and Lovitts (1989)--defined scientific literacy as "a desired level of depth and breadth of scientific understanding appropriate to the interests and needs of the person being taught, set within the context of the developmental, educational, economic, and political needs and interests of a country at a given point in time" (Laugksch, 1996, p. 41). This definition generalized the science content, recognized the contextual factors, and provided for the needs of the entire person; thus, developing a definition that serves across time and space. However, like the Standards, it leaves teachers with questions: What is the desired level? What is the appropriate understanding? While a general definition must withstand the test of time, teachers need to have more specific knowledge for their more practical concerns.

There is research underway currently that will help teachers to implement effective science literacy instruction and assessment into the classrooms. One example is Project Life at Louisiana Tech University (Radford, 1998), where teachers are being trained to teach reform-based science with highly positive results. Project Life's model of professional development for teachers (p. 86) reads like a checklist for good science literacy instruction. Another example is the Project on Mathematical and Science Literacy at the National Center on English Learning and Achievement (NCELA) at the University at Albany, State University of New York. NCELA approaches definition for science literacy from an English education perspective through the design of assessment tasks that are aligned with national standards and that specify science literate responses to the tasks. NCELA's working definition for science literacy is based upon a general, functional literacy definition of reading, writing, listening, and speaking, plus reasoning (an adaptation for science and mathematics derived from the ability to think and make decisions). Research groups such as NCELA will be instrumental in paving the way for administrators to plan policy and for science teachers and curriculum specialists to design, implement, and assess science literacy in the schools using authentic, real-world tasks.


Science literacy has been shown to be related to functional literacy, a major problem in society. The reasons for adult functional illiteracy are stated to be: school dropout; physical or emotional disability; ineffective teachers; lack of reading readiness; parents who couldn't read; didn't know the English language, etc. (LVA, undated). While LVA realizes that these problems begin in the home, it is difficult to look at this list of reasons for illiteracy and deny that schools are innocent of any blame. Conversely, at the level of domain literacy, it is also difficult to blame the lack of science literacy on the home; although, it is certainly a factor. Functional illiteracy or scientific illiteracy...first generation or science educators, we must seek out the knowledge that research is trying to create for us and prepare future generations of students (and ultimately adults) for life in their time and space.

by Marlene M. Hurley, University at Albany, State University of New York


Champagne, A. B., & Kouba, V. L. (1997, May). Science literacy: A cognitive perspective. Paper presented at the International Conference on Science Education, Korea.

Champagne, A. B., & Lovitts, B. E. (1989). Scientific literacy: A concept in search of definition. In A. B. Champagne, B. E. Lovitts, & B. J. Callinger (Eds.), This Year in School Science. Scientific Literacy (pp. 1-14). Washington, DC: American Association for the Advancement of Science.

DeBoer, G. E. (1991). A history of ideas in science education: Implications for practice. New York: Teachers College Press.

Graff, H. J. (1987). The legacies of literacy: Continuities and contradictions in western culture and society. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Hurd, P. D. (1958). Science literacy: Its meaning for American schools. Educational Leadership, 16(1), 13-16, 52).

Kyle, W. C., Jr. (1995). Scientific literacy: Where do we go from here? Science Education, 32(10), 1007-1009.

Laugksch, R. C. (1996). Development of a test for scientific literacy and its application in assessing the scientific literacy of matriculants entering universities and technikons in the western cape, South Africa. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Cape Town, Cape Town.

Literacy Volunteers of America (Undated). History of literacy volunteers of America. (

National Research Council. (1996). National science education standards. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Radford, D. L. (1998). Transferring theory into practice: A model for professional development for science education reform. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 35(1), 73-88.

Venezky, R. L. (1990). Definitions of literacy. In R. L. Venezky, D. A. Wagner, & B. S. Ciliberti (Eds.), Toward Defining Literacy. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.