• Emily Rose Seeber

Is studying literature important for learning Chemistry?

As I'm writing this I'm supervising an entrance test on reading and comprehension for 11+ students. There isn't a Science exam for entry to the school, and I remember a conversation with the Head of Physics last year where he said that he uses students' scores from the Maths test as his baselines for student attainment. The English result is irrelevant to him. I don't think this is particularly controversial amongst Physics teachers.

The importance of literacy

But I read an article in Tes earlier in the year about research which linked literacy more strongly to student outcomes in Science than numeracy. And it rang true. I'm bored of writing comments like "take your time to read the question carefully", "use the key words in the question to help you structure your answer", or "make sure you use scientific terminology to pick up the marks" on students' work. Literacy has a massive impact.

20% of A-level Chemistry assesses mathematical skills. At GCSE and IGCSE it is less. But I have corrected students' calculations time and again with comments on information from the question they had missed. So even on questions which assess mathematical skills, literacy is also being tested.

Take, for example, the topic of acids and bases at GCSE level. This is full of literacy: the definitions, the correct terms for the features, describing observations of the various reactions. There's numeracy too - calculating concentrations and titration calculations, and also using mathematical reasoning - but these are totally inaccessible without reading a long wordy question. Here's an example from an IGCSE Chemistry paper:

"In another titration, the student made a mistake. After he filled the burette, he noticed that the space between the tap of the burette and the tip contained air. After adding the aqueous ammonia, he noticed that it now contained liquid. Explain how, if at all, this mistake affects the calculated volume of aqueous ammonia added."

Of course, this question requires knowledge about the procedure, and some extremely simple mathematics. But this question really assesses a student's literacy: their reading and comprehension skills.

Look through any GCSE paper and you'll find the same thing over and over again.

Of course, the topic of acids and bases becomes more mathematical at A-level with pH calculations. But the questions also become more long winded, with large chunks of text at the beginning of a questions that students need to comb through.

Students with weak reading and comprehension are penalised even if they can grapple with the mathematics or understand the models and concepts used in Chemistry.

Is it the same kind of literacy as students learn in English?

So, hopefully we all agree that Chemistry has a strong component of literacy, and that students need to have strong comprehension skills to be successful. But the kind of scientific literacy we are talking about does seem very far removed from English Lit.

I must add in a disclaimer here: I didn't do A-level English, so I'm not entirely sure what happens in those classrooms, but I occasionally hear people talking about Marxist and feminist critiques of novels. No significant overlap here. So not the same kind of literacy then.

But I have always been a prolific reader. I try to read a book every week, fiction or non-fiction. I've always believed that reading is a great liberator, it sets us free to imagine. I actually think that developing the imagination by reading as a young child helped me develop the skills to learn the abstract ideas I needed to become a chemist. But it also means that I was always confident when I went into an exam that I knew what the question was asking me. I never had comments on my work that I had misinterpreted anything. When I was wrong I was just plain wrong. I actually now regret not studying English for longer.

When you think about it, if you can construct the entire world of Harry Potter, His Dark Materials or Middle Earth in your imagination, you can definitely construct working models of the atom in your mind's eye. And this isn't just true for fantasy, any rich novel requires students to construct new worlds, new contingencies.

What studying literature does give students is the tools to analyse and interpret text at a deeper level. It gets them reading different authors with different styles of writing, and widens their vocabulary. They learn to skim and scan text. Useful literacy skills to help them access their exam papers. And they also learn to visualise whole worlds, and build complex, vivid mental models. And these skills really are crucial for Chemistry at a higher level. Because Chemistry is the science of modelling.

Of course they can do this without English lessons and a well used library card if they are motivated. But I think it is hasty to suggest that what happens in English lessons is not at least as significant, if not more so, as what happens in Maths lessons.

I think we should all be encouraging students to read a lot more. And throw themselves completely into what they are reading. See it, hear it, feel it, analyse it, criticise it. And not just because it makes them 'more literate' - it also makes them better chemists.



© 2017 by Emily Rose Seeber.