« Return to AACT homepage

AACT Member-Only Content

You have to be an AACT member to access this content, but good news: anyone can join!

Need Help?

© Iqoncept/Bigstockphotos.com

Did you know that general chemistry introduces more terms and concepts than a first-year foreign language class? This fact, coupled with students’ inability to absorb the vast amount of information that is typically packed into course textbooks and lectures, accounts for why dropout, failure, and course repeat rates are above 30 percent at college institutions, and also place general chemistry on the “Killer-Course” list.1

These impacts are due in part to the lack of student connection between chemistry and the real world, along with the fact that the textbooks used have remained conventional without stimulating the vast majority of young people to pursue the subject further.2

One difficulty many students encounter in chemistry is that some terms that they use every day may take on a different meaning in chemistry. For example, the term dispersion in common language implies the act of spreading something apart, but in the world of chemistry, dispersion forces refer to the forces that hold particles together.3 Another example of this sort of confusion in terminology is the belief that the melting point of a substance must be hot (high temperature) and the freezing point for the same substance must be cold (low temperature).4

Moreover, in addition to misinterpreting words, students often find it difficult to develop a macroscopic understanding of what materials with strange-sounding chemistry names would look like. Students are often presented with questions and examples involving substances they are unfamiliar with, and are therefore unable to formulate a mental picture or connection. Thus, literacy instruction is needed in the chemistry classroom to support students’ understanding of the vocabulary they encounter.

As chemistry teachers, we need to explicitly teach and model literacy instruction in the chemistry content area so that students can comprehend the content they are being taught. There are many strategies that can be used by the teacher before, during, and after reading a text. Often, teachers may think these techniques and strategies are obvious, but many students have neither been taught them, nor used them in a science classroom.

Seven implementing strategies

When teaching chemistry literacy, begin by choosing a strategy from those explained below. Model it to students with a ‘think aloud’ observation — as if this were the first time you were seeing it yourself, and you were literally explaining out loud everything you are thinking as you go through the strategy. Give students time to practice the strategy until you feel they’ve mastered it before moving on.

There are seven types of literacy strategies that can be used to help students comprehend the content matter.5 Below I will provide an example of each type of strategy and an activity that can be used to incorporate that strategy in your instruction. There are numerous ways to employ these strategies; listed below are methods that I have found most effective.

  • Using and Creating Schema

Students make connections between new and prior knowledge. They must build and activate background knowledge. I use “silent conversations” in my classroom to incorporate this strategy. During these interactions, students are not allowed to speak out loud, but rather must present any questions or comments, share observations, make corrections, etc. in writing. Each student is provided with a different color marker, and must write his or her name on the back of the page so the teacher can later observe the participation of each individual student. For example, you could set up a demonstration and let the students write to each other about how they think it works. Students can piggyback off of each others’ ideas of create new ideas for what they observe and why they think it is happening. Another approach is to provide students with example answers to questions, and instruct students to work together, silently, to correct mistakes and provide support for how the answers could be corrected or improved.

  • Monitoring for Meaning

This strategy requires students to think about what they do and don’t know. “Annotations” are an approach that I use for this. Students are instructed to write the ideas and thoughts that occur to them after being provided with a particular text. They can write anything that pops in their head that may be related to the topic. For instance, you could instruct them to circle or underline each important vocabulary word they encounter, and write everything they know about the word, and any related questions they might have, in the margin.

  • Determining Importance
Example of a concept map created by a student.

Students decide what matters most as well as what is worth remembering. This can be achieved through “concept mapping.” Students connect the words of the unit that are most important for understanding in relation to each other by creating sentences to explain their interconnections. Whereas a flow chart might show the logical order or hierarchy of topics, a concept map explains in words how two concepts are connected. I give students a marker and instruct them to write the words they feel would appear in boldface if they were writing a textbook chapter for the particular unit we are studying. Typically, 20 terms are generated, and at least 10 are required to construct their map.

  • Asking Questions

The purpose of this strategy is to generate questions before, during, and after reading that lead the student deeper into the text. “Sentence starters” can be helpful for this strategy: students are provided strips of papers with ideas for how to start a sentence, generate a question, or analyze data. I like to use the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) developed by the Right Question Institute, which features a series of steps that allow students to ask numerous questions, improve them, and prioritize them in order of importance. QFT begins with a question focus chosen by the teacher (typically something students will look at and be curious about), stimulating them to ask questions. Next, students must produce as many questions as they can without stopping for a discussion, judgment, or even answer to their own questions. The next phase of QFT calls for students to classify their questions as either “C” for closed-ended or “O” for open-ended. Finally, the technique ends with a reflection where students analyze their thinking in the QFT process and what they learned individually.

  • Synthesizing

Students create meaning by combining understanding with knowledge from other sources, including chemistry articles, texts, videos, etc. In my classroom we use the activity, “Yes and…” during which students sit in a circle and create an improv story based on the previous student’s response. The first student begins by making a statement, and moving clockwise in the circle, the next student continues, “yes and…” providing an appropriate content-related response. This is typically done at the end of the unit.

For example, in discussing atomic structure, the following five statements were provided sequentially by a group of students:

  1. “The atom has a positively charged nucleus”
  2. “Yes and the center is positive because of the protons”
  3. “Yes and where the protons are located is called the nucleus”
  4. “Yes and neutrons are also located in the nucleus”
  5. “Yes and the protons and the neutrons in the nucleus make up the mass of the atom”
  • Using Sensory and Emotional Images
Example of a model of a reaction, created by a student.

Students are challenged to create mental images to deepen and stretch meaning. The “Frayer Model Adaptation” is a successful strategy in my classroom. Students divide a piece of paper into four sections. One box is labeled “macroscopic” (what they can visually observe); one is labeled “sub-microscopic” (showing the particulate level); one is labeled “symbolic”; and the last box is left open for connecting. For example, I can use this technique with a demonstration. I place a piece of copper wire in silver nitrate solution while students observe a chemical reaction. On their paper, in one box they draw a picture of the reaction happening, noting the appearance of silver and the blue solution. In another box, students draw particulate representations of the redox reaction occurring. In the symbolic box, they write the redox half reactions, and in the explanation box, they write a summary explaining what is happening.

  • Inferring

Students combine background knowledge with information from the text to predict, conclude, make judgments and interpret. For example, in the classroom, the teacher could present a ChemMatters article to students for reading, and then ask the students to explain a particular phenomenon. Alternately, the teacher could provide students with a vocabulary puzzle where they have to match up the corresponding vocabulary word with another puzzle piece whose corresponding side matches the definition or term presented in the article.

Keep the teaching goal in mind

There is no single way to teach literacy, and what works in the context of one classroom may not necessarily work in another. Whatever strategy is employed, teachers should ask themselves, “Why am I doing this?” to ensure that there is a specific instructional purpose. How it will help students think, read, or write more thoughtfully about the content? I think it is important that teachers explicitly tell their students what strategy they are learning and why it is beneficial. There is no specific order for introducing strategies to students, and one tool is not more important that another. I encourage you to use one that works for your purpose!


  1. Rowe, M. What Can Science Educators Teach Chemists about Teaching Chemistry? A Symposium: Getting Chemistry Off the Killer Course List. Journal of Chemical Education. 1983, 60(11), 954-956.
  2. Gillespie, R.J. Reforming the General Chemistry Textbook. Journal of Chemical Education. 1997, 74(5), 484-485.
  3. Bucat, R. Pedagogical Content Knowledge as a Way Forward: Applied Research in Chemistry Education. Chemistry Education Research and Practice. 2004, 5(3), 215-228.
  4. Taber, K. Chemical Misconceptions: Prevention, Diagnosis and Cure. London: Royal Society of Chemistry: London, 2002, Vol. 1.
  5. Keene, E.O.; Zimmerman, S. Mosaic of Thought: Teaching Comprehension in a Reader’s Workshop. Heinemann: Portsmouth, NH, 1997.

Additional Resources

Beers, K.; Probst, R.E. Notice & Note: Strategies for Close Reading. Heinemann: Portsmouth, NH, 2013.

Brownlee, C. What “Uuo”ught to Know About Elements 112-118. ChemMatters, Oct 2009, 9-10.

Fisher, D.; Frey, N.; Hattie, J. Visible Learning for Literacy, Grades K-12: Implementing the Practices that Work Best to Accelerate Student Learning. Corwin Press, 2016.

Gabel, D.L. Improving Teaching and Learning Through Chemistry Education Research: A Look to the Future. Journal of Chemical Education. 1999, 76(4), 548-554.

Johnstone, A.H. You Can’t Get There From Here. Journal of Chemical Education. 2009, 87(1), 22-29.

Kenney, J.M. Literacy Strategies for Improving Mathematics Instruction; ASCD: Alexandria, VA, 2005.

Sheppard, K.; Robbins, D.M. Chemistry, the Terminal Science? The Impact of the High School Science Order on the Development of U.S. Chemistry Education. Journal of Chemical Education, 2006, 83(11), 1617-1620.

Tovani, C. Do I Really Have to Teach Reading? Content Comprehension, Grades 6-12. Stenhouse Publishers: Markham, Ontario, 2004.