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Developing literacy and numeracy skills

Literacy and numeracy skills are essential for students to develop their abilities in science. Teachers support students by identifying their literacy and numeracy capabilities, building on their strengths, and developing their areas of need.

Why are literacy and numeracy important?

The New Zealand Curriculum identifies “using language, symbols, and texts” among five key competencies that all people need in order to live and learn. These skills prepare students for successful participation in tertiary education, for careers in an increasingly knowledge-based society, and for life as reflective and informed citizens.

The curriculum makes it clear that every learning area requires both literacy and numeracy skills, and presents opportunities for students to develop them.

For example, a strong grasp of reading, writing, mathematics, and statistics gives students the necessary skills to comprehend scientific text, diagrams, and data and to communicate their own ideas.

At the same time, studying science can motivate students to enhance their literacy and numeracy skills.

Literacy in science

Literacy involves reading and understanding texts (in print/online), visual images, graphs, tables, diagrams, visual cues, and thinking critically about them. These texts have both written and visual features.

For science learners, literacy is the ability to understand, respond to, and use a range of specialist language to describe the natural world and represent and communicate ideas.

  • Literacy in science should not be confused with scientific literacy, which is defined here.

Science students need specific help from teachers as they learn:

  • the specialist vocabulary associated with science
  • how to read and understand scientific terms and texts
  • how to communicate knowledge and ideas using the language of science
  • how to listen and read critically and assess the value of what they hear and read.

Science teachers support student learning by:

  • knowing their students and their literacy needs
  • identifying the literacy demands of the curriculum
  • identifying concepts students will find difficult and having strategies to address these (this is called pedagogical content knowledge, PCK, and is crucial in science) 
  • making outcomes appropriate for each student
  • supporting students to make abstract concepts concrete
  • recycling language and terminology so that it becomes an integral part of students’ vocabulary
  • encouraging students to self-evaluate and strive for improvement.

When students have the opportunity to select their own context for their science learning they are more motivated to develop increasingly sophisticated literacy skills through expressing understandings about science. They can generate and discuss ideas and access a range of information within this context (use the “think it - draw it – talk it – write it” strategy).

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Numeracy in science

Numeracy is the ability to understand numbers and calculations. As they become numerate, students develop the confidence, willingness, and ability to apply these skills to different learning areas at school and in their lives beyond the classroom.

Science students rely on mathematics knowledge and skills when they undertake scientific inquiry and communicate about their own and others’ ideas. Students specifically use numeracy skills when they:

  • gather data by making observations and taking measurements
  • process data using calculation, tabulation, graphing skills
  • interpret data by identifying patterns and trends
  • calculate and predict values
  • make judgments about accuracy of data
  • consider issues of uncertainty and reliability.

A key strategy for developing students’ numeracy and mathematical skills involves changing information from text to data and vice versa, for example:

  • interpreting information presented in tables and graphs to describe trends
  • taking information from a piece of text and presenting it as a table or graph
  • taking information from a piece of text to solve an algebraic problem in physics.

Last updated August 16, 2019