What’s literacy got to do with me? After all, I am a high school chemistry teacher and not an English teacher!

I have enough to do trying to teach chemistry without having to worry about teaching literacy too! Besides, chemistry is about equations, experiments and calculations. It’s closer to mathematics than English.

This view was common among many science teachers in Scotland, including me. However, just over 10 years ago, the Scottish government launched “Curriculum for Excellence,” a complete overhaul of the entire curriculum across the full age range of 3-18. This new curriculum was to enshrine three tenets: numeracy, health and well-being, and literacy. These were mandated as the responsibility for all teachers.

As head of science in my school, I was responsible for ensuring these tenets were embedded in all our science courses. Not only did I have to convince myself of the worth of this task, I also had to convince 14 other cynical science teachers it was, too!

Numeracy would be easy — we already did calculations and drew graphs. As would health and well-being because we taught about food groups, forces in the context of health and sports. Literacy would take the big sell to the science teachers.

I met with the head of English to look at the new literacy standards so she could help me contextualize what they were. It didn’t take me long to realize my phobia about teaching literacy was unfounded.

Reflecting on it, I think my issue was the fear of the unknown. I knew how to teach science but not literacy. I suspect it was a similar issue for other science teachers, too.

My epiphany was teaching literacy in science, or indeed any subject, is not an unknown. Literacy is about good learning and teaching.

For example, if you are doing an experiment, students have to read and understand the experiment’s instructions. A teacher may have them identify key steps of the procedure to ensure they know what they are doing before they start. Students will then work in teams and, therefore, have to listen carefully to directions and observations while making their own thoughts clear to their partners. They will have to capture data in tables and graphs and write a conclusion.

The above example illustrates how the literacy skills of reading, writing, listening, and talking are deployed in teaching a science concept. The more proficient a student is with these literacy skills, the better and quicker they can grasp the science. This realization helped me assuage the fears of my fellow science teachers about developing literacy practices in our day-to-day lessons.

We can all agree having students read and write more is a good thing. But getting them to do this is harder. However, if we can get students to love our subjects, perhaps this is the conduit to them reading more.

Often as a student I felt stigmatized because I wasn’t reading fiction books. I loathed English at school because I had to read texts I had no interest in. However, I would read book upon book about the history of the world wars and science.

Therefore, if we teachers can continue developing our teaching practices which embed literacy skills, and understand our subject may be the one trigger that motivates and engages a student to be a better reader, writer, listener and talker, not only have we helped them develop a skill for learning but also skill for life and work, too.

Developing such skills takes resources, and one is our school district’s “Community Reads” website. You’ll find numerous ideas, conversation starters, family-friendly events, and familiar faces to inspire your child to read.

Euan Hunter teaches chemistry at Vanguard High School. Originally from Scotland, he joined the VHS staff in 2016 and holds academic degrees from the University of Edinburgh, University of Strathclyde and the University of Cumbria. Hunter also taught in England, Scotland and Brooklyn.