Many students often feel threatened by “scientific language”. It hinders their learning of science concepts. But once they master this language, they become better learners of science. How can we teach students this skill?
Despite our best efforts, some students still do not do well in science. A crucial problem that is often unaddressed lies in the language used to communicate science concepts.
Many students are put off by so-called scientific “jargon” and the seemingly complex sentence constructions. Students learning science in other languages, like Chinese, French and German, encounter the same kind of complexity that confuses students learning science in English. (Tan & Soong, 2006)
In fact, students may not be confused by the complexity of science concepts, but by the way they are communicated. How do we surmount the language barrier so that students become better learners of science?
Learning the Language of Science
The key is to view the learning of science from a “language-learning perspective” rather than viewing science as “an experimental, empirical discipline”. What looks like scientific “jargon” is actually a specialized language with a unique set of rules of phrasing, grammar and vocabulary.
This specialized language makes science appear “impersonal and even inhuman to many students”. It seems much more difficult than it is, and students feel alienated from it. (Lemke, 1990, p. xi)
However, scientific texts can be made accessible. And as Assistant Professor Tan Aik Ling puts it, science is all about reading, writing, and talking about it.
“Language is the medium through which scientific knowledge is constructed,” she explains. “Students need to learn how to code and decode the language of science. They need to read like a writer and write like a reader of science to be true science practitioners.”
In other words, knowing the rules of science communication is crucial to understanding science concepts. This is because scientific goals and thought processes are closely interlinked with the language used to communicate science. (Tan & Soong, 2006)
The challenge, then, is to teach our students to be “scientifically literate”.
STRAW – Scientific Reading And Writing
Aik Ling investigated the benefits of teaching scientific literacy skills to students in a project called STRAW, short for “Scientific Reading And Writing”. In her study, 40 Secondary 3 students of one school were taught scientific literacy skills in an enrichment course.
Over five weeks, the students were given three science articles to analyse. The course focused on:
- Introducing patterns of scientific language
- Common difficulties and how to overcome them
- Extracting information from scientific articles
- Reading and writing summaries in science
Students were asked to pen down their thoughts about each class in a journal. Their journal entries indicated that they found scientific articles daunting but were progressively able to make sense of these articles.
The students were assessed before and after the course for comprehension of two different scientific articles. Results showed significant improvements in students’ understanding of scientific articles after they were taught the language of science. (Tan & Soong, 2006)
Teaching the Language of Science
Aik Ling recommends that science teachers make a conscious effort to teach the language of science, and not just the content of science. This may be infused into a regular science lesson, or taught separately as she did with her STRAW programme.
Here are some ways to to infuse the teaching of scientific literacy skills:
- Point out elements of style and phrasing every time you read scientific texts with the class.
- Discuss the process by which the writer arrives at a particular idea and how he communicates his idea.
- Explicitly teach students about the language and grammar rules in science. For example, teach them about nominalization, and how scientific articles are written from a third-person perspective.
- Encourage students to use the language of science in scientific activities, rather than everyday language.
When your students are able understand both the language of science and its content, they become more independent and effective science learners. They can then read, write and talk in a scientific manner – just like a real scientist.
Fang, Z. (2005). Scientific literacy: A systemic functional linguistic perspective. Science Education, 89(2), 335-347.
Lemke, J. L. (1990). Talking science: Language, learning and values. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
Tan, A. L., & Soong, L. (2006). The language of science: Alternative lenses to examining the learning of science. In W. D. Bokhorst-Heng, M. D. Osborne, & K. Lee (Eds.), Redesigning pedagogy: Reflections on theory and praxis (pp. 261-270). Rotterdam, Netherlands: Sense Publishers.
Halliday, M. A. K., & Martin, J. R. (1993). Writing science: Literacy and discursive power. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburg Press.