The language of science is specific and precise, says Dr Joanna Rhodes – and it’s important that our students both understand and use it with confidence…
Why teach this?
The internationally conceived language of scientific terminology has as much vocabulary as a modern foreign language and yet we sometimes teach it with the assumption that students will pick it up as they go along. Addressing the language of science as a linguistic phenomenon, explaining how certain words are constructed, and helping students to understand and use these is crucial in helping them to understand and engage with aspects of the scientific method and to improve extended writing. One of the most obvious barriers to the public understanding of science is language, jargon and terminology. Science teachers are in a unique position to equip a generation of students with this language and the ability to comprehend and engage with scientific literature in an increasingly technological world.
In the previous issue we explored the opportunities for KS4 science to support and extend students’ mathematical skills. In this issue we address the need for students to refine and extend their literacy skills including reading and understanding scientific vocabulary, comprehension, use of the correct terminology and extended writing. As is the case with mathematics we can support our students better by addressing their literacy explicitly and by the way we mark and feedback on the work they complete. There is therefore a strong argument for developing a scheme of work or sequence of lessons that guides and supports science teachers in developing students’ literacy skills.
This technical lesson aims to introduce students to the five areas of literacy which enable them to communicate scientifically and to understand and engage with the material when presented as an examination question. We will address: the origin of scientific words; the language of experimentation and how this is important as a framework for creating experiments that are fair tests and yield reliable results; extended writing and planning a response to a longer question; the role of glossaries and supporting scientific language acquisition; and finally for your gifted students an extension into comprehending scientific literature in journals and other articles. Strong cross-curricular links exist between the aims of the lesson and English language, IT, media, modern foreign languages and ancient languages.
Where do those words come from?
We would not attempt to teach a modern foreign language such as French without addressing students’ need to understand the vocabulary and grammar of the language. However this is not something we always specifically cover in science lessons, nor is the diversity of the origin of scientific words and phrases, which incorporate inter alia, Greek, Latin and German as well as English. Introduce students to why science has its own ‘language’ due to the need to be precise in the way a scientific message is conveyed. Common language is open to ambiguity, for example the familiar word fair has different meanings when used to describe the weather, a person’s hair, an action or decision, or a student’s performance at school. Therefore a scientist prefers his own words that can be rigorously defined.
A very interesting example, showing how scientific words are made up from Greek, introduces words describing various ‘situations’ a kidney may find itself in. For example: the Greek noun nephros (kidney) is used in nephropathy (disease of the kidney), nephralgia (pain in the kidney), nephritis (inflammation of the kidney) or nephroptosis (a dropping of the kidney). We may undergo the surgical operations of nephrotomy (a cutting of the kidney), nephrectomy (a cutting out), nephrorrhaphy (a sewing up) or nephropexy (a fixing in place). We might like to invent a few more terms ourselves. The kidney can suffer the processes of nephrothermolysis (being cooked) and nephrophagy (being eaten)!
Ask students to use the endings in these words relating to kidneys to create their own medical terms to describe the things that could happen to the liver (‘hepar’), stomach (‘gaster’) or bowel (‘entero’) [AR1]. Then ask students to use the internet to investigate the meaning and origins of the following scientific words: ‘gastropod’ (Greek), ‘supersonic’ (Latin), ‘pterodactyl’ (Greek), ‘helicopter’ (Greek), ‘carnivorous’ (Latin), ‘television’ (both Greek and Latin), ‘zwitterion’ (German), ‘vector’ (Latin), ‘Eigenvalue’ (German) and the very interesting ‘chemistry’ (Arabic, Greek and French). A useful resource for students is the Online Etymology Dictionary [AR2]. Using this site triggered an interest in my students many of whom were sharing meanings and origins of a range of words, not only scientific, many lessons later!
1. The language of experimentation
We use jargon and terminology to describe experiments and the process of scientific investigation. Students are often presented with a definitions list prior to completing a controlled assessment where a range of terms is introduced such as variables, hypothesis, control, error and anomalous. These terms also form the principals of scientific study, but are difficult to learn out of context. In this activity students practise devising hypotheses and spotting variables for a range of everyday experiments before carrying out the experiment of their choice and evaluating their results.
Explain to students that a hypothesis is a scientific prediction and encourage them to make their own predictions such as: the height a ball bounces to depends on the type of ball, the time it takes to boil a kettle depends on the volume of water in the kettle, the rate a can cools is dependent on the colour of the can, the size a plant grows depends on the amount of light it receives, the speed of germination of a seed depends on the soil temperature. In all of these investigations there is a dependent and an independent variable. The dependent variable (DV) is the factor we are going to measure; the independent variable (IV) is the factor we are going to change. So in the case of the bouncing ball we are changing the type of ball (IV) and measuring the height of the bounce (DV).
In all cases there are a number of other factors that could affect the outcome. In the case of the bouncy ball it could be the height the ball is dropped from. These must be controlled if the experiment is to be fair. Thus the third type of variable, the control variable (CV) must also be defined. Ask students working in groups to plan an investigation of their own or select from a list of suggestions that you provide. When carrying out their investigation you have further opportunity to introduce more terminology: we repeat experiments so that we can spot anomalous results (ones that do not fit the pattern) and calculate a mean (average). We could check whether our experiment is reproducible (yields the same results when someone else attempts it). Finally we can draw conclusions from our experiment and state whether it supports our original hypothesis, we can identify patterns in the results (trends) and we can evaluate our experiment possibly reducing errors (systematic and procedural) by making modifications to the way the experiment is carried out. Support for students in creating their experiments can be found at GCSE Science Methods online [AR3].
2. Extended writing
Most exam boards require a number of extended written responses (six mark or more) in their examination papers. However these can also be the most common of un-attempted questions. Some students simply find the idea of constructing an argument, opinion or response too daunting. All too often this is the case for low ability boys. There are a number of strategies you could try to break down the challenge of that large empty space. Use the lesson or a sequence of lessons to introduce students to these different strategies until they have found one that works for them.
1) ‘Cover it in CUSTARD’ [AR4]
Circle command words
Underline key words
Scribble down extra words that could be useful
Think about how your keywords will make useful sentences
Account for every part of the questions
Read every word once you have finished
Do not rush
2) ‘Six steps to sixcess’ [AR5]
1) Read the question carefully
2) Write down key words
3) Link keywords to form plan
4) Write keywords into sentences
5) Underline keywords to show technical knowledge
6) Proof read your answer
3) Provide models of high, medium and low six mark answers and ask students to mark them using student friendly marking criteria. This engages students with six mark questions without the need to do much writing to begin with. Once they are more confident of what is expected they could be more willing to try themselves.
4) Give students the opportunity to improve their work a number of times. Provide constructive feedback and allow students time to reflect on their work and add to it. This lowers the ‘risk’ associated with getting something wrong. Students working in peer groups can also provide feedback within the lesson and improve their answers before they are seen by the teacher helping them to grow in confidence and be less wary of making mistakes.
5) PEE – point, evidence, explanation; often used in English, this is equally appropriate in science to help students link their answers to the text provided, which is especially useful if they are extracting information from a passage at the start of the question.
6) Help students to devise mini-tables as a writing frame appropriate to the command word. The main commands used in six mark questions are compare, evaluate or explain. Students then use their tables to brainstorm keywords or as a checklist to ensure they have addressed all parts of the question.
Create your own glossary For each topic or unit of study, set a homework for students to select the main keywords they have learned about and to write a couple of sentences of explanation or information about each word. This could be built upon in the back of their class books until they have a complete glossary to aid revision. Comparisons could be made between this approach and a vocab book in languages. You might even chose to give them little vocab books to use which could be accompanied by quick vocab/spelling tests as starter or plenary activities.
stretch them further
Comprehending scientific literature
Engage your gifted students with comprehension questions you devise from science journals or newspaper articles. For the former you could ask them to look for evidence of the experimental methods used by the scientists and ask them how they have ensured their experiment is a fair test. For the latter, newspapers or more populist science publications, you could ask them to suggest weaknesses in the arguments and the evidence you would need to see to back up the hypothesis or claim. It is helpful for students to make the distinction between articles produced for peer review which need to provide enough detail for experiments to be reproduced by others and newspaper articles, which are written to provide interesting headlines.
About our expert
Dr Joanna L. Rhodes M.Chem, D.Phil, MRSC is a teacher of science at Shelley College, Huddersfield.
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