As clear as mud

1st January 1999 at 00:00
If pupils' language skills aren't up to scratch, they'll have problems with scientific terms. John Stringer on how you can help them out

Imagine that you are very young, that English is not your first language, and that you have just succeeded in acquiring the language you need to manage at school and see real success. You enjoy science - it's practical, social and fun - and one day your teacher congratulates you on your discoveries, and asks you to "put them in a table".

You have learned that a table is something with four legs. Now all at once, that familiar word has got a different meaning. This ambiguity is true of other science words - such as key, mass and material - and could be a stumbling block. There are many more examples of everyday words with scientific meanings (see box 2) and it is important that we note them, and use science language with care. How can we do this?

First, always list the science words that will arise in your next topic. If you are using the optional schemes of work in Science for key stages 1 and 2 (QCADFEE, 1998), then you will find that vocabulary is identified for you. Take Year 4, unit 4C: the words include temperature, thermometer, conduct and insulate, and specific phrases like room temperature. Make sure that you know what each word means. For example, you could use the word "insulate" in at least three different contexts. Look each word up - an ordinary dictionary is much better than a science dictionary which often gives an incomprehensible definition. Find ways of using the words that draw children's attention to them. Pairing new words with more familiar ones can help: "attract" - "pull together"; "repel" - "push apart". If we use scientific words too loosely, we are laying poor foundations for children's future understanding.

But there is a positive side to the science and literacy link. If you want to learn a new language yourself, or brush up on one for the holidays, you will be motivated to learn. You will probably find the new language interesting, and you may well do better in a social situation than you do with a personal stereo and a pile of language tapes. Or, you enrol for an evening class. All these conditions - motivation, enjoyable activity and shared work - are offered by practical science. Children work together in science at something they enjoy. It is a great vehicle for language development.

And science offers so many wonderful stories to draw on and use. You can't read the words of great scientists without being thrilled by them. "I, Galileo, son of the late Vincenzo Galilei... must altogether abandon the false opinion that the sun is the centre of the world... and that the Earth is not the centre of the world and moves..." (Galileo to the Inquisition); "After dinner, the weather being warm, we went into the garden and drank tea under the shade of some apple trees, only he and myself..." (William Stukeley on Isaac Newton); "The main conclusion of this book, namely, that man is descended from some lowly organised form, will, I regret to think, be distasteful to many..." (Charles Darwin on The Descent of Man).

Many of these stories are readily accessible to young children through popularised versions in books, and through television and CD-Rom.

Scientists have always needed words to express their discoveries and understanding. Our children are no different. Their style may be personal and lively. "I put some salt in the water and it disappeared. But I could still taste it." Recording the excitement of science can motivate children who are otherwise reluctant to put words on paper.

John Stringer is a freelance writer and in-service trainer on primary science. On Saturday January 9 at 11.30am he will be running a workshop at the ASE on thelanguage of science


* Mass - not the weight of something, but the amount of stuff in it, and therefore unchanging, whatever planet you're on.

* Weight - the force with which gravity pulls on you. Most commonly the Earth's gravity, and so often used interchangeably with mass, but varying with the planet or moon you are on.

* Pitch and volume - the former is how high or low a note is, the latter, how loud.

* Producer - the first step in a food chain, commonly a green plant (but it could be a bacterium that can synthesise food without sunlight, hence the 'almost always' bit in the national curriculum).

* Orbit and revolve - frequently confused. The earth revolves on its axis but it orbits the sun.

* Planet - a heavenly body that orbits a star. Hence, since the sun is a star, it is not a planet. Neither is the moon.

* Satellite - something that orbits a planet, and not necessarily launched from Nasa. The moon is a satellite of the earth.

* Friction - either a force (most scientists seem to agree) or a phenomenon (most engineers insist). Either way, it slows down movement.


SCIENTIFIC WORDS WITH AN EVERYDAY MEANING circuit................. racing

cycle................... bike

diet ..................... slim

environment .... countryside

fair...................... taking turns; travelling entertainment

fit......................... athletic

force................... make someone

key....................... to the door

light .................... as a feather

mass................... large number;

main part

material............ fabric

property............ ownership

sound................. solid

table.................. dinner table



* Discussion is stimulated by working in threes. Two friends doing science may have a common and familiar way of communicating.

* Presenting results to others imposes a discipline as well as giving purpose to recording.

* Snowball or jigsaw activities where groups share and exchange information are engaging.

* Discussion before and after an investigation can clarify thoughts. 'How do I know what I've found out till I hear what I say?' LISTENING

* Stories. See the Ginn Science pupil books, for example, or the Channel 4 Schools series 'Great Science Stories'.

* Carefully prepared debate and role-play.

* Following instructions, including safety instructions.


* There is a wealth of reading about science topics in books and on CD-Rom. Children reading about Scott of the Antarctic found that the hollow insulating hairs in the furs worn by Amundsen's team were a major factor in the expedition's success.


* Annotated diagrams are an effective way of recording practicalscience - used by adult scientists as well as children.

* Ordering and recording is difficult, and can be better done to a writing framework.

* Writing helps to order your thoughts. A recorded observation may lead to a conclusion.


The Faber Book of Science edited by John Carey, Faber amp; Faber, pound;9.99. An amazing collection from scientists' essays, letters, journals and books that, used selectively, would be a rich source for KS2 work on the use of language in science.

* Science and the Use of Language SCAA 1997, pound;1. Available in every school or order from QCA publications, tel: 01787 884444.

* The Hutchinson Dictionary of Science Penguin, pound;14.99. By far the best of the bunch for specialist words, combining readable definitions with some useful line diagrams.

* The Oxford Reference Dictionary OUP, pound;14.95 . A general dictionary including some brief encyclopaedic explanations and some clear black and white line illustrations.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today