I have been a learning support co-ordinator for several years and have noticed a trend among pupils that may explain the decline in popularity of science.
Many of the students referred to our department for additional support are mildly dyslexic, with assessments that show their verbal IQ scores to be below their non-verbal scores. Previously pupils with such profiles would have experienced problems with the wordier subjects: English language and literature, RE and history, but it is now the sciences that confuse them.
I assume that some of these difficulties are linked to the memory and language problems experienced by many dyslexic pupils. In particular, their need to be exposed to specialist vocabulary for far longer than their peers to understand fully the meaning and appropriate use of individual words.
As scientific vocabulary is rarely used outside the labscience classroom, dyslexic pupils do not have the necessary opportunities for over-learning and experience problems with texts and verbal explanations that rely on the use of these subject-specific words.
The students experience a similar problem in foreign languages (another group of subjects that are falling in favour), when a teacher explains errors made in a French text in French, the language with which the pupil has the difficulty.
Post-national curriculum science is carefully regimented, with all children introduced to specialist terms at infant level, and formal scientific language used throughout key stages 1 and 2. This makes little sense when many pupils do not have age-appropriate English at school entry. If dyslexia is considered to be a form of developmental delay then, a substantial number of non-dyslexic pupils will be too linguistically immature to cope with such an early introduction of a large amount of comparatively complex language.
Boys, who have traditionally dominated science at A-level and at university, will be particularly affected because of their slower linguistic development.
Perhaps the declining popularity of the sciences has its roots in the national curriculum: pupils can no longer look forward to physics, biology and chemistry as new, challenging subjects to be enjoyed at secondary level, when increased linguistic competence is more likely to ensure a deeper understanding and promote the curiosity necessary to pursue the subjects to A-level.
Patricia Guy 19 Waterloo Road, Bedford