When it comes to Science, pupils may know the answer to a question, but not the right words to express their understanding. An NIE researcher and her team explore why and how they can help these learners.
Science pupils often find it a challenge to express themselves in the classroom. But it is not always the case that they do not have the content knowledge or that they do not understand the concepts – they sometime do.
“Pupils may actually know the meaning of words,” Lay Hoon explains. “But they use these words under conditions that are not appropriate.” (See box story for an example)
Teacher Awareness and Collaboration
To support students, Lay Hoon says that teachers must first be aware of the challenges their pupils face. Only then can they diagnose and address these challenges for their learners.
One way teachers can do to find out if their learners have trouble expressing themselves using the scientific language is get them to write and draw out their explanations or answers concurrently.
If their written and illustrated explanations concur, chances are, the learners have no problem expressing themselves accurately. But in cases where their written explanation has no relevance to their illustrations, that may be a sign they need help because they have either misunderstood the concept or need help in scientific writing.
To address this, Lay Hoon and her team work with three teachers to design and implement Science lessons for four Primary 4 classes for 3 months.
“Through the collaboration, we were able to learn from teachers how feasible and useful those learning activities are in supporting pupils’ use of science language,” Lay Hoon says. And in the activities designed, providing pupils with proper scaffolds play an important role in their learning.
When pupils are given a big question in a test, they will naturally give those small bits of answers they have always done in class.
– Seah Lay Hoon on providing pupils with proper scaffolds
Scaffolding Scientific Explanations
Open-ended questions in Science have always been a bugbear for pupils. Teachers expect answers to open-ended questions to have certain components. But pupils tend to provide only parts of an answer.
This could be because very often, in whole-class instruction, teachers would start with a “big” question. If their pupils are not able to answer it, teachers would “break” it down into smaller questions that require shorter, simpler answers. If they do not show how all the short answers make up a complete explanation for the big question, pupils may think to themselves, “I have given complete answers to all questions.”
“When pupils are given a big question in a test, they will naturally give those small bits of answers they have always done in class,” explains Lay Hoon.
To help pupils tackle open-ended questions, the research team designed lessons that scaffold the process of writing scientific explanations into three parts: observation, inference and reason. Teachers also show pupils how they should bring the various parts together with appropriate sentence starters and connectors. This can help pupils understand what is considered to be a complete explanation.
Rather than memorizing chunks of answers, such scaffolding provides a greater awareness of the distinctive features of the Science language and to better articulate their own understanding.
However, just being able to use scientific terms appropriately is not enough. The team believes that being able to identify the different scientific text types is also crucial.
Reading and Identifying Science Texts
As many science teachers are proficient readers themselves, many may not think that reading a textbook requires any special guidance.
But to Lay Hoon, without explicit strategies and guidance, some pupils may encounter difficulty taking on the role of an active reader. To help them, the classroom activities include one on active reading strategies teachers can use to support pupils in the reading of their textbooks.
“Previously, there was limited focus on helping pupils to read their textbook,” Lay Hoon says. “With this activity, we hope that students can do more self-directed reading.”
Through such activity, the pupils will eventually learn how to identify different text types in the textbook, which will help them tackle open-ended questions better.
In Science, one common text type is the cause-and-effect text. It usually consists of sentences starting with “when” or “because”. “When something happened, it causes something else to happen,” Lay Hoon explains the cause-and-effect text.
“We have to help pupils recognize such text types,” says Lay Hoon. “The different text types denote or depict different relationships in Science. Through identification, pupils will know what kind of relationships or meanings the text is trying to make.”
While these young pupils may not be consciously aware that they are picking up the language of science, Lay Hoon and her team are hopeful that a focus on how they communicate in Science in the classroom will help them learn better.
Seah, L. H., Clarke, D. J. & Hart, C. (2011). Understanding students’ language use about expansion through analyzing their lexicogrammatical resources. Science Education, 95(5), 852–876.