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Break the language barrier

Lack of familiarity with scientific words can too often hold pupils back, says Jerry Wellington, as he outlines ways to expand their vocabulary

The focus in primary and secondary education has largely been on science as a practical subject, often quite rightly. But for many pupils the greatest obstacle in learning science - and also the most important achievement - is to learn its language.

One of the important features of science is the richness of the words and terms it uses. Many of them are simply new names for objects we are all familiar with - such as "trachea" for windpipe, or "chlorophyll" for the green stuff in plants. But other words refer to ideas, often abstractions which help us understand the world better - which is what science is all about.

Words like energy, inertia, work, atom, electron, isotope, momentum .. . all refer to the abstract but extremely powerful ideas of science. Unfortunately, some of the words of science are also used to mean something different in everyday life - words such as work, energy, power, cell and field, the place where farmers keep their cows - and the double-entendres can create clouds of confusion.

Another area where terms are needed in science is to label processes that occur in nature, such as evaporation, condensation, melting (fusion), evolution, decay or diffusion. Processes that don't occur naturally but are vital to science, such as distillation, nuclear fusion or fission, and electrolysis, also require words to denote them.

Finally, all that weird and wonderful apparatus which can be seen in school labs but never elsewhere requires a whole new vocabulary to label it: pipettes, burettes, tongs, conical flasks, tripods, condensers, evaporating dishes and Bunsen burners.

In short, the language of science comes in many shapes and forms: naming words, abstract ideas or concepts, apparatus, processes (some artificial, some natural). No wonder that the language of science presents so many barriers to learners but is so powerful once learned.

There is now a strong emphasis on language in science teaching. The national curriculum document (DFEWelsh Office, 1995) includes a "Use of Language" section in its common requirements for all key stages. The programmes of study at each stage also include a section on communication which says pupils should be taught to "use appropriate scientific vocabulary to describe and explain the behaviour of living things, materials, and processes". But what practical strategies can teachers adopt to begin to lower the language barrier?

Many authors have written excellent material on this, most notably Clive Sutton. But here are a few practical ideas for working with the words in primary and secondary science classes.

Using wordbanks

One specific strategy is to develop a word bank of the important, commonly used words in science which can be produced and displayed in large lettering on the laboratory wall. These can be of great help to those who have difficulty in "finding words" as well as those who need help with spelling. The word list could include common items of apparatus; important labelling words, such as parts of a device, parts of the human body; words for important concepts and processes, such as photosynthesis, electrolysis, evolution; the common units, for example, joule, newton, metre etc.

These key words could be referred to whenever pupils are doing a written task, not least as a memory jogger. For home use they could be written in a "Science Wordbank" at the end of the pupil's book. For some lessons with especially new and difficult language, a sheet could be given out at the start with a clear list of all the words, terms, etc which will be used during the course of the lesson.

The Association for Science in Education has produced a Wordbank Poster with a collection of about 300 words for 11 to 16-year-olds. This is an alphabetical list formed from examining the national science curriculum for England and Wales and a sample of recent science textbooks, and from talking and listening to pupils and teachers. It contains most of the words and terms pupils will encounter in their journey through the science curriculum. (The Wordbank poster - 84cm x 59cm - for the walls of science rooms and an A4 sheet for pupils' booksfiles can be obtained from ASE Publications for a small charge to cover pp.) Incidentally, scientific terms present obvious barriers - but a more neglected problem is that of the non-technical words which are nevertheless essential to learning science. Certain commonly spoken and written words - such as accurate, tend and observation - seem to pose the greatest difficulty for pupils. Words like rate, factor, average and valid also appear to be a problem. There is a clear need for science teachers to be careful and vigilant with all age groups, not only with technical terms but also the non-technical terms of science.

Developing a glossary

QMS magazine from Questions Publishing regularly publishes an illustrated glossary of key science words. This can be used in many ways in the primary or secondary classroom. For example, the definitions can be pasted on to laminated cards and kept in an index box. Learners (and teachers) could then consult them, use them and talk about them whenever the need arises - as part of a writing, reading or talking activity. The definition of the key word heart comprises a drawing of the organ and text that includes: "Inside the heart are special one-way valves which allow blood to pass from the atrium to the muscular ventricle beneath. The right ventricle pumps blood to the lungs to pick up oxygen. The left ventricle pumps oxygen-rich blood to all other parts of the body."

Both the Glossary and the Wordbank can be viewed using the Internet through the Schools On-Line project.

Encouraging active reading

Science textbooks have certainly improved in the past decade, thanks partly to the 1980s research that showed the language level of most common texts was far too high. But a page of text on science can still be a daunting prospect to pupils.

One way to make reading more active, more sociable, and less daunting is to use cards of various kinds to go with a piece of text. This can involve a lot of preparation and adaptation by the teacher but can pay off for all learners from the written word. The following examples have been tried and tested: * Truefalse cards: statements from the text are either transcribed straight on to laminated cards or adapted slightly so that they are false. Using the text, a page from a book for example, students have to sort the cards into two categories: true or false. They discuss these and then perhaps compare their results with another group or present them to the teacher.

* Agreedisagree cards: on a sensitive or controversial topic, statements (for example from different pressure groups or parties) can be made into cards and then, during group discussion, placed into disagreeagreenot sure categories.

* Matching pairs: a variety of activities can be done with cards which form matching pairs. For example, the pairs might be: * a part of a body and its function * part of a device, eg a car, and its function * types of teeth and the job they do * a picture and a word * a common name and its scientific name * a material and a common use for it * chemical name and its symbol (elements or compounds).

The activity can then involve lining the cards up as a group or it could be done as a memory game often called "pelmonism". This involves placing all the cards face down on the table in two separate groups, for example name in one group, chemical symbol in another. By gradually uncovering cards players form pairs which they then keep if they form a pair but replace (face down) if they don't.

* Putting words or terms into groups: words can be put on to cards, for example names of a range of animals, and then sorted into classes or groups with a heading on another card (underlined or in upper case) at the top of each group (mammalsnon-mammals, etc). This could be done with metals and non-metals; solids, liquids and gases; conductors and insulators; vertebrates and invertebrates and so on.

* Sequencing: sentence cards describing, for example a process or an experiment, are jumbled up. They are placed by groups into their version of the correct sequence.

There are many other examples of reading activities that can be done with cards, like sorting the "odd one out" and explaining why. Other effective word activities or word games are: a science version of the game Pictionary; anagrams; 20 Questions, for example, to guess an animal; Word Bingo; hangman with science words; a Jscience version of Dingbats.

Text from any source can be used to encourage students to read actively and critically. Government pamphlets, supermarket leaflets, magazine advertisements, propaganda from pressure groups, and cuttings from newspapers can all be used. Further ideas on the use of newspaper articles have been published in a piece entitled: "Using Newspapers in Science Education", by Jerry Wellington in the School Science Review of March 1993.

These are just some of the classroom activities which can be used to encourage learners and teachers to focus on the words and language of science which are such a vital part of science, but are often forgotten in the effort to make it a practical, hands-on subject. All these strategies can help to build up an awareness and an interest in the language of science.

QMS magazine is produced by: Questions Publishing, 27 Frederick Street, Birmingham B1 3HH. Details of the Glossary and the Wordbank for 5 to 13-year-olds can be obtained from them.

The Wordbank and poster for 11 to 18-year-olds can be obtained from: ASE Publications, College Lane, Hatfield AL10 9AA.

Details of the Schools On-line project and how to access the Wordbank and Glossary via the Internet from: Sheffield Hallam University, tel: 0114 2532209 Secondary Science: Contemporary Issues and Practical Approaches, ed by JJ Wellington, (1994) London: Routledge Words, Science and learning, Clive Sutton, Clive (1992), Open University Press

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