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Ten years ago, I had a bad case of laryngitis that lasted several days. During those few days, I found myself amazed by what I discovered about teaching and learning while I was unable to teach as I normally would!

In my classroom, I often read aloud, paraphrase sections from a lab, or demonstrate new techniques when preparing students for an activity. An experienced English teacher once told me that this practice was good modeling for my students, and that when students read aloud to a class, they do not process what they are reading very well. The same teacher cited anxiety as the reason, except for very confident students.

During my days fighting laryngitis, in an effort to save my voice I had one of my best students read directions aloud. When he came to the written formula for calcium chloride, he spelled out “C-a-C-l-2”, and then referred to water by spelling out “H-2-O.”

Now, why would this successful student spell out the formula, instead of reading it as “calcium chloride”? He had done an excellent job on the nomenclature test, and I did not want to embarrass him by questioning or correcting him (especially with my limited voice). So I decided to let it go, and did some reflecting on why he had not applied what we had learned in the previous chapter.

With a little research, I discovered the term “chemical literacy,” and quickly realized that solving my problem was not going to be easy or simple. So began my journey to investigate what it means to be chemically literate, and how I could help students in this endeavor.

My first objective was to try to understand the problem. The dictionary, which never fails to help clarify my thinking, defines literacy in two ways: first as “the ability to read and write” and second as “competency or knowledge in a field.” I then searched with Google and found a couple of articles in the Journal of Chemical Education that reflected different perspectives on what it means to be chemically literate. In their 1989 paper, authors Missen and Smith1 were concerned with reading and writing chemical equations. Seventeen years later, authors Shwartz, Ben-Zvi and Hofstein2 asserted that scientists had a narrower view of chemical literacy than high school teachers. Scientists were concerned with just a few key concepts, while teachers were more concerned with the concepts’ application. In a blog on Greenbiz.com, Rinkevich (2014) refers to chemically literate citizens as being able to understand the link between consumers and chemical products.

There were so many perspectives on the concept of chemical literacy, and they seemed to be evolving all the time. But I was just looking for practical ways to be a more efficient teacher: I wanted my students to be able to speak, read, and write about chemistry competently.

Encouraging Speaking

I teach in a small rural school, so I am the entire chemistry and physics department. This fact influences me to collaborate with teachers of other disciplines. I had read somewhere that during the first semester, a new chemistry student learns as much vocabulary as a first-year Spanish student.

A very innovative Spanish teacher taught just down the hall from me; his students were always noisy but productive, and seemed to enjoy speaking Spanish. His goal was that after students had been in his class for four years, they should be able to communicate with native speakers of Spanish.

In order to accomplish this goal, he provided his students with opportunities to speak Spanish often — which lent itself to a noisy classroom. His students were also tasked with reading and writing in Spanish, but his primary emphasis was on speaking the language.

My fellow teacher and I started to compare how we scaffold learning for our students. He had the Spanish alphabet arranged on the wall, similar to a kindergarten classroom. My corresponding chemistry alphabet would be the periodic table.

However, I realized that I was skipping steps, and assuming that students knew that upper and lower case letters were how one distinguished elements. The reality was that some of my students incorrectly used “CO” for cobalt, while others always correctly wrote “Co”; some students noticed subtleties and others did not. In my zeal to cover all the material, I was guilty of leaving out this important piece of the code that was necessary for the students’ basic understanding. I was plowing right into nomenclature without breaking down the fundamentals, so it was no wonder many were confused. Since then, I have learned to take baby steps, trying to go deeper into concepts instead of trying to “cover” all the chapters in the book.

As I had learned from my colleague, speaking a language is an important part of mastering a language. I now knew that in order for my students to become chemically literate, I had to find ways to have my students communicate constructively in the classroom — we had to get noisy!

I searched for techniques that would require students to collaborate in some form almost every day, and found a couple of good resources. For example, I attended a short course about Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL) at the National Science Teachers Association’s regional conference in Kansas City in 2010. I also found POGIL Activities for High School Chemistry, edited by Laura Trout. She and the other good folks who put in the time and effort to develop this program are heroes in my book. (You can buy this book from ACS eBooks and you can find POGIL training videos on the Internet). In general, POGIL is the best resource I have found for encouraging students’ speaking.

Students use whiteboards to practice translating chemical reactions into words.

Students work through the POGIL process in partnership, discussing chemistry in small, guided groups using the proper language of chemistry. In the time that I have been using POGIL, I have noticed that my students are less shy about asking questions — and they also ask better questions. The use of POGIL prevents me from skipping steps in student understanding. The students develop concepts and communicate those ideas in small groups; we then discuss the findings as a class. The students have more to contribute and have lots of practice speaking the language of chemistry.

Another favorite tool for increasing students’ chemical literacy is the collaborative use of whiteboards. As teachers know, learning chemistry requires study and LOTS of practice. Similarly, an athlete cannot shoot a free throw or make a lay-up without practice.

I have noticed that my students quickly get tired of practicing by using worksheets. However, if I put them in a small group and give them a whiteboard and colored markers, they will practice with a good attitude. I provide each group with a large whiteboard, 2' X 4' to allow two or three students to work together easily. This also helps promote my goal of leaving no one behind — everyone in the group must understand each problem. The whiteboards allow me to observe how the students think about problems, so I can quickly identify students who are struggling, and then spend more time with those students. This technique helps to develop student confidence, whether it is naming compounds, writing formulas, balancing equations, or solving stoichiometry problems. Confident students are not afraid to apply their knowledge to new situations. The students must communicate with each other using the same chemical language.

A sample of copper (II) sulfate in a plastic bag.

In my experience, students do not believe that all the chemical formulas represent actual substances. I use every opportunity to demonstrate that these substances are real. As an example, I put 10 different chemicals in separate Ziploc bags and write either their chemical name or formula on the bag. The students write a description of each substance and either its corresponding name or formula. The chemicals chosen include representatives of all the different classes of compounds that we study.

Improving Reading

Many students are not familiar with the names of elements other than oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, and a few of the metals such as gold or silver. Making connections is an important part of understanding any kind of reading material. To help my students become more aware of what elements are on the periodic table, early in the year we do a project called “Elemental Puzzles: Breaking Bad." The artwork on the title page of the show “Breaking Bad” was my inspiration, and I thought that my students could certainly come up with their own creative designs. I have had students incorporate jokes, song titles, favorite sports teams, poetry, and Spanish into their posters.

About four years ago, my school district arranged for an in-service on literacy. The teachers had a district-wide requirement that students must engage in a close-read at least once a quarter. I really struggled to make this practical in my classroom. I tried the technique with a chapter on the atomic model, with which my students usually do very well — but not this time. In fact, they were the worst grades of the entire year — no As at all — and we worked really hard at reading, redefining, underlining, paraphrasing etc. It was an absolute disaster … so no more close-reads for me, I thought.

Then I found Jenelle Ball’s September 2015 article, “The Chemistry Close Read,” which totally changed my perspective on how I view and use the close-read technique. Now I use the close-read process to expand the knowledge base of my students and improve chemical literacy by reading about toxins such as arsenic in the environment or the application of Boyle’s Law to SCUBA gear. Of course, the articles in ChemMatters magazine are also wonderful resources for this type of work.

Improving Writing

In my experience, students often do not have a clear idea about what good writing looks like. One technique I like to use early in the year is what I call “Good, Better, Best.” After I grade the students’ lab report questions, I type up samples of some of the answers and project them to the class. I don’t include students’ names on the questions, and mix up answers from different classes. I also type them exactly as written by the students. Here is an example:

Lab: What is a Chemical Reaction? Good, Better, and Best Answers

Question: Compare and contrast the reactions of Al, Mg, and Zn with HCl.


  • Good: Al had no observable change. Whereas, Zn and Mg had a temperature change, and formed gas bubbles.
  • Better: Zinc and Magnesium both had a temperature change and created gas bubbles. Aluminum appeared to have no change.
  • Best: There were no observable changes for Aluminum with hydrochloric acid. The magnesium mixed with hydrochloric acid caused a temperature change and gas bubbles. The zinc like the magnesium has a temperature change and formed gas bubbles.

Students respond well when they understand the rules of the game. I point out that while the answers are similar, the Best answer was written very clearly; as readers we can understand much better what took place in the experiment.

Here are two more examples of student writing in which they answered a question from our text, using data to determine if, in fact, a piece of metal was pure gold.

  • Good The metal isn’t gold since gold is 19.3g/cm3 and this metal is 16 g/cm3.
  • Best The density of the object is 16 g/cm3. The object is not pure gold. The object is 3.3g/cm3 less than the density of gold. The object could be an alloy of gold and other less dense metals.

While both answers are correct, the Best answer demonstrates effort in writing a complete explanation. This student also provides justification for the claim.

Sharing student examples of writing with your classes can have many positive effects, and there is safety in being anonymous. Shy students who write well sit up a little straighter and gain confidence when you praise their work. Students who struggle with writing have concrete examples on how to improve their writing. Motivated students want to have their answers shared. Using this technique, my students improved their writing quickly and I spent less time on individual corrections.

Currently I am adding the teaching of argumentation, both written and spoken, to my curriculum. I purchased the book, Argument-Driven Inquiry (ADI) in Chemistry, in an effort to help my students write more thoughtful lab reports. Throughout this process, I have gone through a lot of trial and error. These labs take a lot of time, so it is rare that I can work all the steps for each lab. Most of the time we focus on just one or two steps in the ADI process.

For example, when we investigated density, I had some instructional labs that allowed the students to learn how to determine the density of a substance by taking measurements of mass, water displacement, or using geometry. The students also learned to use deviation techniques to determine the quality of the data. For the argument piece, I divided the students into teams and gave them a brand new hunk of oil-based clay, along with the guiding question, What is the density of the clay?

The actual experimental work did not take that long, but writing the justification and presenting evidence in a concise and thoughtful manner took some time and effort, and allowed students to practice those skills. The students presented their finding to other groups by making a poster on 11" x13" paper. The compositions are based on a poster, which I purchased from the ADI website. The biggest problem I have had with ADI in the past is communicating expectations to the students, and the poster project we did last year certainly helped address this problem. ADI is definitely a work in progress in my classroom, if anyone would like to share about ADI on the Discussion Board, I would find it valuable to continue the conversation.

Some Final Thoughts

Students need practice in reading, writing, and speaking the language of chemistry in order to become proficient in chemical literacy. We must create opportunities in our classroom for students to acquire experience in these areas. I love stoichiometry and my students spend a lot of time in the laboratory. I am learning to break out of my comfort zone and embrace the idea of a more complete and well-rounded student through promoting chemical literacy. I hope that that this article will spur an exchange of ideas in the AACT community; we need to share our struggles and successes!

Near the end of this year, I had a student reading some lab directions, which included the following:

Cu(s) + 2 AgNO3 (aq) → Cu(NO3)2 (aq) + 2 Ag(s)

The student interpreted the equation: “Solid copper combines with aqueous silver nitrate producing aqueous copper II nitrate and silver metal in a single replacement reaction.” He then continued the rest of the passage without missing a beat. My jaw dropped, because not all my students would be this confident, and I am not a miracle worker! So this was a big deal! I congratulated him, and my heart did the happy dance!


  1. Missen, R. W. and Smith, W. R., A question of basic chemical literacy?, J. Chem. Educ., 1989, 66 (3), p. 217.
  2. Swartz, Y., Ben-Zvi, R, and Hofstein, A., Chemical Literacy: What Does This Mean to Scientists and School Teachers?, J. Chem. Educ., 2006, 83 (10), p. 1557.