Helping learners become fluent in the language of science classrooms

The language that’s spoken in science classrooms is very different to every day English – even mother tongue English speakers may struggle because of this. From

Science at school level is largely viewed as a practical subject – one that is taught using experiments, for instance. But effective teaching and learning requires language, whether it’s written in textbooks or shared orally during classroom discussions. Language is necessary even while doing practical work: teachers must explain what they are doing and students need to ask questions.

Research involving a wide range of educators in a number of countries has consistently found that teachers do most of the talking in classrooms. Language plays a crucial role in the formation and development of concepts. This suggests that a teacher’s language is vital in teaching science and creating the condition for meaningful learning.

The language of teaching and learning

In South Africa and other countries where many pupils do not learn in their home language, curriculum designers have judged the appropriateness of the language in which science is taught by considering whether it is the learners’ mother tongue or not.

Students learning in their mother tongue are generally thought to have an advantage over their counterparts who are being taught in a second or third language.

The general assumption among teachers is that all learning follows through smoothly once learners have attained some proficiency in the language of learning and teaching. But not everyone who is proficient in the language of teaching and learning – for instance, English – excels in science.

The anatomy of words in the classroom

The words that comprise the science classroom language fall into two broad components: the technical and non-technical. The former comprises technical words which are specific to a science subject or discipline: photosynthesis, respiration and genes in biology; momentum, capacitance and voltage in physics; atoms, elements and cations in chemistry. When used as science terms, every day words attain new meanings. They become science words.

The non-technical component is made up of non-technical words and defines or gives identity to the particular language of learning and teaching in a classroom or the language of a science text. Some of these non-technical words give identity to certain science subjects where they are used to embody a particular concept important to a process of learning in the specific science subjects: “reaction” in chemistry, “diversity” in biology and “disintegrate” in physics.

Some non-technical words like “if” and “therefore” serve as links between sentences or between a concept and a proposition. Some words like “define” and “explain” are used in place of “say”, while non-technical words like “calculate” and “predict” are used in place of “think”.

The difficulty of the science classroom’s language

Science is considered a difficult school subject. This is partly because pupils find science words tough or unfamiliar. They are also confused when a word that means one thing in everyday language means something different in science. “Resistance”, for instance, means something totally different in everyday language and in physics.

They will also be puzzled when a non-technical word seems to have acquired a meaning specific to the context of a particular science subject. “Disintegrate” when used in physics does not refer to something “breaking into lots of very small pieces”. Even children who speak English as their first language and are learning science in English struggle because of these differences.

A review of relevant research shows that students struggle with the language of the science classroom because of these differences whether they are learning in their home language or not. Boys and girls struggle equally. Pupils battle irrespective of their individual cultural backgrounds.

This transformation of everyday words’ meanings when used in the science context is one reason that even learners who speak the language of learning and teaching fluently sometimes struggle to tell the meanings of everyday words when used in science.

The appropriate approach

It’s clear that a new measure is needed to judge whether the language used in science classrooms is appropriate. Curriculum developers and teachers must consider how easily accessible the meanings of all categories of words are to science students.

Pupils will still have to be proficient in the language of learning and teaching. But teachers will have to become more conscious of how words change their meaning in the context of a science classroom. Then they will need to carefully explain these words and their varied meanings.

Once again, “teacher talk” will take centre stage in classrooms – but it will result in pupils who can understand and apply scientific concepts that might otherwise elude them.