Concluding their book, Language and Literacy in Science Education, Wellington and Osborne write:
“If science education should place greater emphasis on ‘scientific literacy’, then how can an emphasis on language assist? Historically, there have been [-p.139] four meanings associated with the term literacy or being able to describe someone as literate. The lowest level is the ability to write and read your own name – an aspect which is clearly not the responsibility of the science teacher. The next stage is simply the recitation stage where an individual is able to recite, or read, information but has little understanding of the meaning of the words or their implications. We believe that some of the science teaching commonly used for revision for exams rarely transcends this level as pupils learn parrot-like answers to respond to closed and limited questions. Asked to justify their thinking, or to relate the idea to another concept, the limitations of their knowledge can often be cruelly exposed.
The next level of literacy is the ability to comprehend unfamiliar material – an ability which in the case of science is dependent on a good knowledge of a wide range of concepts and ideas that pervade the sciences. Many science teachers would argue that this is their major contribution to making an individual scientifically literate. Our contention in this book is not to disagree with such a position, but to suggest that developing an understanding of the ideas and concepts of science means that pupils need to spend more time interacting with ideas and less time interacting with apparatus’. More importantly, it means that if we wish to place an emphasis on being able to read (and write) science, then it is important to develop pupils’ knowledge and understanding of the standard stylistic conventions of scientific language. In short, teaching about the use of language of science is not an optional extra but central to the process of learning science. For without a sense of why it is that science is written in these strange and unfamiliar forms, and what the words mean in the context of their use, science will simply remain a foreign language.
The highest form of literacy is the evaluative or analytical stage, in which readers are expected to analyse and critique what they read and draw inferences. This level of literacy requires an extensive knowledge of the domain and the forms by which it is represented and communicated. Several authors have argued that this is simply an aspirational myth and that even scientists are illiterate outside their own specialist domain. Our view would be that to portray ‘scientific literacy’ as a bivalent quality which an individual either has or does not have is mistaken. Instead, ‘scientific literacy’ exists on a continuum from being totally illiterate (and totally dependent on others) to absolute expertise (and total intellectual independence). Knowing and understanding the language of science is an essential component of scientific literacy. However, for too long, we feel, it is an element that has been seen as an additional, extraneous element of science teaching – a ‘bolt-on’ element, which like all such bolted on elements has a nasty habit of dropping off under the exigencies of time. Reducing the literacy gap means recognizing that the study of the language of science must be brought to the fore.” (pp.138-139)
Ref: Jerry Wellington and Jonathan Osborne (2001) Language and Literacy in Science Education. Open University Press: Buckingham, Philadelphia.