Language is an important tool for helping students learn science, and we often hear from teachers that the language of science is challenging for students and holds them back in their learning. This can be due to:
- Complex scientific terminology.
- Words in science that mean something different in everyday life like weight, force and incident. Trying to understand the meaning of familiar words in a different context can be challenging for students.
- Logical connectives, which are the words that suggest addition (and), opposition (otherwise), cause (because) and time (after) are essential to construct a scientific argument but can be confusing for students.
- The language of science doesn’t just involve words. Students also build their understanding through graphs, maths, equations, symbols and diagrams. These different forms can help students’ understanding, but introducing mathematics can create new barriers. The ability of students to transfer maths skills to science is a problem recognised in educational research. It is worth planning to include time during the lesson to support students with this key skill.
- Scientific reports are often written in the passive voice, which students can find confusing.
Focus on the three skills
So how can you support your students in using language in science classrooms? Let’s focus on three skills areas: speaking, reading and writing.
When we ask closed questions, students respond with short-form answers. Often that means they only practice basic conversational language. Download a checklist of ideas to help encourage more extensive discussion involving scientific language.
Students should learn to build ideas from reading scientific writing. To do this they need to develop skills in reflective reading. Reading activities which can help to build students’ skills in reflective reading are known as Directed Activities Related to Text (DARTS). In DARTS students deconstruct or construct text to help them understand it. You could try some of the following in your teaching.
We know students will learn more if they have to actively think in order to write. There are different types of writing, classified into three types. As our downloadable checklist shows, all three types can help to expose student ideas, help you assess what to teach next and help you work out what support is needed.
We hope these tips provide ideas to help overcome the challenges of learning in English, and enable better learning in your science classroom.
Excerpts of this blog post are taken from Approaches to learning and teaching Science