Lorrayne A. Serra, Department of Developmental and Cell Biology

Reading and the Language of Science

Learning science is directly related to understanding the language of science. At first, learning a language is challenging, but if the appropriate tools are provided, students can excel. To understand science, student must therefore master reading and writing. Although science is considered “hands-on” learning, which to most people translates into experiments, students are not always aware that behind experiments scientists spend more than 50% of their working time reading, writing, and speaking (Tenopir & King, 2004). Students spend a lot of their time also reading and writing while in school. However, they often only read science textbooks and mostly write answers to questions in lab manuals or write lab reports.

For students to effectively learn science, first they must read scientific literature. Barriers to scientific literature include the technical terms and the difficulty in understanding the format of primary literature. Adapted Primary Literature (APL) retains the technical terms and structure of a scientific article but the language is simpler and some details are omitted (Phillips & Norris, 2009). At the college level, professors and teaching assistants (TAs) are familiar with scientific literature. Thus, instructors can easily utilize APL. Another way to implement scientific reading is to use online interactive resources such as “Evaluating Scientific Research Literature” (ESRL) which introduces interactive videos, questionnaires, and stages of reading scientific articles (Day et al., 2015; Letchford et al., 2017). Scientific literature can become more accessible if students have tools such as APL and ESLR to help in learning science language.

Writing and the Language of Science

Once students are familiar with the scientific literature, the next step is to write. One option is to ask students to write popular science articles. Popular science articles helps students view their projects from a different perspective. It also requires them to have a good understanding of the literature for their project (Pelger & Nilsson, 2016). Another way to make writing integrative in a classroom is to use technology. A study found that K-12 students are motivated and engaged when writing involves technology (Williams & Beam, 2019). Students can present a science concept through blogs, comic strips or movies using readily available tools such as iMovie, photoStory, ToonDoon, and GIFs. These technologies will not replace writing, but complement their learning of science.

Learning science requires students to be proficient at reading primary literature and to write science. Reading and writing in science stimulates creativity and can be a “hands-on” experience. Students who solely read science textbooks are at a disadvantage for two reasons: textbook language does not reflect the format or language used in journals, and textbooks do not  stimulate imagination. APL and ESLR could serve as complement to textbooks in classrooms, and a bridge into critically reading scientific articles. Also improving writing options such as popular science articles, blogs, comics strips can complement student learning. In short, improving students’ experiences in learning science requires the utilization of new methodologies and technologies.


Day, T., Letchford, J., Corradi, H., & Rogers, T. (2015). Devising an Online Resource to help undergraduate science students critically evaluate research articles. Journal of Academic Writing, 5(2), 1–19.

Letchford, J., Corradi, H., & Day, T. (2017). A flexible e-learning resource promoting the critical reading of scientific papers for science undergraduates. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, 45(6), 483–490.

Pelger, S., & Nilsson, P. (2016). Popular Science Writing to Support Students’ Learning of Science and Scientific Literacy. Research in Science Education, 46(3), 439–456. 

Phillips, L. M., & Norris, S. P. (2009). Bridging the Gap Between the Language of Science and the Language of School Science Through the Use of Adapted Primary Literature. Research in Science Education, 39(3), 313–319. 

Tenopir, C., & King, W. D. (2004). COMMUNICATION PATTERNS OF ENGINEERS. Hoboken, NY.

Williams, C., & Beam, S. (2019). Technology and writing: Review of research. Computers & Education, 128, 227–242.

Matthew Mahavongtrakul edited this post on April 22nd, 2019.