Science - On the best of terms

Dig out the roots of scientific language to make it clearer

James Williams

Teaching science can be a bit like teaching a modern foreign language. Pupils have a lot of vocabulary to learn, and some scientific terms can be complex. But a little Latin, Greek and Arabic can help to demystify scientific terminology.

Teaching prefixes, suffixes and word roots can help pupils negotiate textbook terms. For example, if they know chemicals ending in "ose" are invariably types of sugar, or those ending in "ase" are enzymes, half the battle is won when teaching digestion. Add some roots for words and they will soon know that maltose is broken down by maltase and protein is broken down by protease.

Some words connect unlikely subjects. The xylophone, a common school musical instrument, is linked to the woody tissue of plants through the Greek word "xylo", meaning wood.

Over centuries scientists have often combined Latin and Greek terms to produce hybrid words - for example, acidophile from the Latin "acid" and the Greek "phil", meaning love. And such hybrids are not restricted to science: everyday terms have similar origins, such as "television" - a combination of the Greek "tele", meaning "at a distance", and the Latin "vis", meaning "see".

Other scientific words stem from Arabic, including "alkali" and "alcohol". Similarly, maths is indebted to Arabic for "algebra".

But we should be careful not to confuse meanings. Here, context is all. A sentence such as "Copper is a good conductor" lets us know we are talking scientifically. Or are we? Andrew Copper is an American musician and may well be a good orchestral conductor. Many words in science have everyday meanings - energy, power, fruit, salt - and even in science, words can have more than one scientific meaning - "cell", for example.

A troublesome word in science is "theory" - even scientists use the term variously. In everyday life, a theory can be a hunch or a guess, but in science it is a well-evidenced explanation of a natural phenomenon, yet some scientists use it interchangeably with "hypothesis", a testable scientific idea. Ideally, we should prefix theory, hypothesis, law and fact with "scientific" so that pupils know those words mean something different in science.

Understanding the roots of scientific words, knowing prefixes and suffixes and getting to grips with distinguishing everyday meaning from scientific meaning is part of the journey to becoming scientifically literate and not being put off by the complexities of the subject's terminology.

James Williams is a lecturer in science education at Sussex University's school of education and social work

What else?

Liz74 has shared a booklet of scientific belief systems which has strong links to sociological topics and is getting positive reviews. You can also try Orion's mapping resource for an enquiry into how science works

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