How literacy in its fundamental sense is central to scientific literacy

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How Literacy in Its Fundamental Sense Is Central to Scientific Literacy
STEPHEN P. NORRIS, LINDA M. PHILLIPS University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada T6G 2G5 Received 16 April 2001; revised 3 May 2002; accepted 9 May 2002
ABSTRACT: This paper draws upon a distinction between fundamental and derived senses of literacy to show that conceptions of scientific literacy attend to the derivedsense but tend to neglect the fundamental sense. In doing so, they fail to address a central component of scientific literacy. A notion of literacy in its fundamental sense is elaborated and contrasted to a simple view of reading and writing that still has much influence on literacy instruction in schools and, we believe, is widely assumed in science education. We make suggestions about how scientificliteracy would be viewed differently if the fundamental sense of literacy were taken seriously and explore some educational implications of attending to literacy in its C 2003 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Sci Ed 87:224 – 240, fundamental sense when teaching science.
2003; Published online in Wiley InterScience ( DOI 10.1002/sce.10066

INTRODUCTION Discourse about thegoals of science education and science education reform often is couched in terms of literacy. In the English language, literacy is understood in two related but distinct ways. In one sense, literacy means ability to read and write. In the other sense, literacy means knowledgeability, learning, and education. The two senses are related. A person can be knowledgeable without being able to read andwrite: individuals can learn much by trial and error, word of mouth, and apprenticeship. However, when we turn to a disciplined body of knowledge, such as western science, and sophisticated knowledge of it, the connection between knowledgeability and ability to read and write is tight. We first argue that nothing resembling what we know as western science would be possible without text; second, thatbecause of the dependence of western science upon text, a person who cannot read and write is severely limited in the depth of scientific knowledge, learning, and education he or she can acquire. These points are why we shall refer to reading and writing when the content is science as the fundamental sense of scientific literacy, and being knowledgeable, learned, and educated in science as thederived sense. The points are also why we claim that the fundamental sense of literacy is central to scientific literacy. We shall proceed first by showing that conceptions of scientific literacy typically attend to the derived sense of literacy and not to the fundamental sense. Second, we shall specify
Correspondence to: Stephen P. Norris; e-mail: The development of this paperwas supported by grants from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, 410-99-0197 and 410-96-0053, and by a grant from the National Centres of Excellence in Language and Literacy Development (CLLRNET).

2003 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.



more exactly what we mean by the fundamental sense of literacy and contrast thisnotion to a simple, word-recognition-and-information-location view of reading that remains prominent in literacy instruction. Third, we shall reconsider scientific literacy in light of the discussion in the previous sections and suggest how it would be viewed differently if the fundamental sense of literacy were taken seriously. Finally, we shall discuss the educational implications of attending tothe fundamental sense of literacy when teaching science. CONCEPTIONS OF SCIENTIFIC LITERACY AND THE FUNDAMENTAL AND DERIVED SENSES OF LITERACY Scientific literacy is used variously in one or more of the following ways: (a) Knowledge of the substantive content of science and the ability to distinguish science from nonscience (CMEC, 1997; Mayer, 1997; NRC, 1996; Shortland, 1988); (b) Understanding...
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