Eat your words

5th May 2000 at 01:00
Sarah Ford links science with literacy.

Freddie Starr ate my hamster ... what happened next?" Isn't this a far greater stimulus to a pupil than "write about the process of digestion" or short-answer questions for those reluctant to commit themselves to extended writing? For the more squeamish try: "Oh No! Gary's swallowed a button. You are that button on a mission."

Learning the language of science can be likened to learning a foreign language. The words are strange to begin with; but practice in speaking and writing them will help retention and understanding.

A project developed over the past 18 months by the Association for Science Education aims to put literacy into science as a way to improve attainment, and help teachers to be confident when teaching it. The work has been completed by members of the 11-16 committee past and present, most of whom are either teachers or have direct access to pupils via advisory work.

If we want to increase pupils' literacy, we need to plan for this and start when a science topic is introduced. Increased awareness of language in turn helps the science. What do we need to know, and what do we want to check that pupils know? For example, if we take digestion as a topic: Where does digestion start? What happens in the stomach? What are the breakdown products of starch, protein and fat?

How do we follow the topic through? Here are some strategies. In practice it would not be necessary to use all of them on the same topic.

Word definition.

Have a word wall of words identifiable with the topic in large typeface, or written clearly - no capital letters or fancy fonts. Spend five minutes each lesson asking pupils to give a definition of one of the words. Asking named pupils helps ensure everyone pays attention. Pupils can add the meanings of words they did not know to their own glossary at the back of their exercise books, for example, enzyme, saliva, oesophagus.

Play games. Write a selection of the word wall words on an A4 sheet. Use a large typeface and even spacing so that sheets can be cut up. Put pupils into groups of three to four with a set of words and give them a task, such as taking all the words that name parts of the digestive tract and putting them to one side, for example, stomach, oesophagus, mouth. Check the words before moving on to the next task. Get pupils to put the words into the correct sequence for food passing through the body: mouth, oesophagus... Then check their work nd correct it.

Next make a map, showing how all the words from the set relate to one another. On a very large sheet of paper, draw an outline around a pupil's body. Draw the digestive system inside the outline then add the words to make a poster.

Flash cards.

Flash cards can help monitor individual understanding when pupils are working in groups. Make small cards (eight to an A4 sheet) from up to four colours of paper. Make a set for each member of the class, paper-clipped together. Start off with two colours, perhaps blue for true and red for false. Tell the pupils what the cards stand for. Asking a truefalse question and getting pupils to show a coloured card in response gives the teacher an instant picture of who knows and who does not. There will be an element of guessing, but further questioning can draw this out.

Using four cards is more complex. Nominate the cards as fat, protein, carbohydrate, and vitamins and minerals. Ask questions such as: What food type do potatoes contain most of? What type of food builds bodies?

Pupils like flash cards: "Just like a game show on television." Pupils who are normally quietly compliant can become active participants. The cards give every pupil interaction with the subject matter, the teacher is able to see at a glance what is known, and there is no marking.

Creative writing.

A topic such as the digestive system gives a sequence that pupils can understand, ideal for extended writing and creative writing since the linear framework is already in place. Selecting relevant information from text in books, groups of pupils can work together adding the functions of each of the parts of the system to their poster. The poster could be used as the resource material for writing poems.

The 11-16 committee of the ASE is completing a textbook that takes a practical approach to using literacy to promote learning in science in secondary schools. With some parallels to Primary Science and Literacy (ASE pound;15), it goes further, expanding the work for older pupils. There are four sections: vocabulary, oracy, reading and writing. It includes plenty of examples and expands on ideas mentioned here. It is cross-referenced to the key stage 3 scheme of work for science in England and will be applicable for use in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. It should be out by September.

Sarah Ford is head of science at Birchgrove comprehensive school, Swansea, and chairs the ASE 11-6 committee

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