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Language of science often too complex

A key aim of A Curriculum for Excellence in secondary schools is the development of literacy skills across subject areas. To some extent, this follows initiatives from the past, such as Language Across the Curriculum. However, the nature of language demands across subjects and departments can vary considerably, and an appreciation of this variety is important when addressing issues to do with classroom pedagogy, policy and practice.

An investigation I undertook on the S2 science curriculum found some barriers to reading, which are of concern.

Subjects often have specific language characteristics associated with them. For example, in English lessons, pupils frequently write in the first person and read narrative texts. Indeed, their initial reading experiences are mostly confined to the narrative genre.

Most pupils are introduced to the scientific register in S1-2 but, after this, are often expected to cope with quite complex forms of this register with which they may be relatively unfamiliar. They may also lack appropriate strategies to effect useful learning.

Characteristics associated with the language of science include excessive sentence length, a high degree of subordination, subject-specific terminology, ellipses and passive grammatical constructions.

In my investigation of an S2 science course text, only one of six teachers commented on sentence length as potential source of difficulty, despite most of them being 20 to 40 words long. Some pupils were uncertain about words like "impurities" and phrases such as "quarter fill" and "micro tube". Only two out of the six science teachers felt technical vocabulary was a source of difficulty. However, three teachers did mention the lack of illustrations, sub-headings, paragraphs and font types as factors which could affect readability and understanding.

Subjective assessment by teachers of the readability of school texts has generally been shown to be inaccurate, with most under-estimating levels of difficulty. This is perhaps due to their own high levels of reading competence and familiarity with subject content.

However, research has highlighted that many 14-year-olds can only hold up to 13 or 14 words in their short-term memory, before they begin to experience comprehension difficulties. Despite this, many school textbooks continue to be written beyond the reading age of many pupils. This not only affects comprehension but also the motivation of many students to engage with subject matter.

A whole-school approach to literacy is therefore important. In practice, this could consist of working groups from a variety of subjects and departments focusing on key developmental objectives and disseminating information freely to colleagues. Possible areas for discussion could include: "the use of oral language in the classroom", "language of different school text books" or "common writing mistakes". Such activities would help raise awareness throughout the school.

Lastly, language skills should be cultivated holistically in the classroom, with students being allowed to learn by talking and writing as well as by listening and reading. Activities should not centre around the teacher as a presenter with learners as passive recipients, but on interaction between pupils in pairs or small groups. Pupils learn best through the use of oral language, as well as by reading and writing.

Surinder Bhopal is a chartered teacher at Hillhead High, Glasgow.

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