Academic Language in Science Teaching
Posted: Monday, November 1st, 2010
by Donna Ross
Most preservice teachers in California are preparing to teach in diverse communities. And, perhaps more immediately on your minds, is your preparation to complete one of the high-stakes assessments (PACT, TPA) demonstrating your understanding of pedagogy, with an emphasis on meeting the needs of learners from diverse backgrounds. A critical component of meeting the needs of all learners is recognizing the academic language demands in the science classroom and implementing strategies to support learners. There was a time when science teachers whined, “But I’m not the English teacher!”
Fortunately, we have moved beyond that mindset. Our job is to provide comprehensible instruction in science. To do that, we must recognize the demands we place on the learners and ensure their skills allow them to make sense of the content.
I’ve read that a high school biology class has as many new vocabulary words as a high school French class. How do we handle this language load? Start by deciding if all those words are critical to understanding the concepts. If not, don’t require the students to memorize them. If so, teach strategies to help learn the words. Incorporate mini-lessons on root words, cognates, prefixes and suffixes, relationships between words, and common mistakes you have seen. Provide students with graphic organizers, foldables, or illustrated glossaries to use as study guides. Be explicit about which vocabulary you consider critical for the class. Have illustrated word walls available during the unit to provide support as the students are doing labs. Consider having photographs or actual objects as part of the word wall and show the connections or relationships among the words, as well. English learners need support with the function words used for sequencing, comparing, contrasting, and cause and effect.
Many science terms have specialized meanings different from their use in everyday language while others have common homophones. For example, students may be confused by the use of cell (jail), cell (biological), and sell (market) or different uses of the term period (punctuation, physics, health, synonym for stop). Even native English speakers have trouble distinguishing the common use of acceleration, control, model, and theory, with the scientific meaning of the words.
Academic language is more than just vocabulary, of course. Think about the demands on the students while you are lecturing or providing instructions. As students listen, what supports do you provide? Do you have visuals and real objects to illustrate your meaning? Do you decrease the complexity and length of your sentences? Try audio-taping yourself. Do you use idioms or metaphors that are difficult for English learners? Do you speak quickly, or do you pause at the end of every sentence to allow students to mentally “catch up”? Are your instructions written and illustrated, as well as described and demonstrated? Many students need the added time to go back and review the written directions after hearing the verbal instructions.
Reading poses a whole set of challenges, not just for English learners. Science textbooks are difficult for many students to comprehend. We can support learning by including mini-lessons on text structure and expository reading strategies, such as using headings, sub-headings, interpreting figures, reading charts, using a glossary and table of contents, identifying main ideas, noticing bold words, and looking for summary paragraphs.
Provide the most language-heavy instruction of the unit, either verbal or written, AFTER the hands-on investigations. This will provide a meaningful schema to connect with the new language. Then, during the verbal and written portions of the lessons, refer frequently to the investigations the students have experienced to make those connections explicit.
Analyze your assessments, as well. It is not unusual for a preservice teacher to create a series of excellent lessons with many supports for English learners but conclude with an exam that requires such a high level of reading and writing skills it is impossible to judge what the students know about science. Performance-based assessments are the most authentic, but the use of diagrams and figures can ease the academic language demands on an assessment.
These recommendations are not meant to convert your course into an English class; rather they should scaffold your science instruction so that all students can learn the content. The mini-lessons and supports should be focused and brief to assist the students in comprehending the science. Your planning and implementation of strategies to help all students understand science is the best preparation for becoming a teacher in the diverse schools in California. These are also a few of the skills necessary for passing the high- stakes assessments in teacher preparation programs. Best of luck on both!
Donna Ross is associate professor of science education at San Diego State University and is CSTA’s 4-year college director.
Posted: Tuesday, March 14th, 2017
The pre-publication version of the new California Science Curriculum Framework is now available for download. This publication incorporates all the edits that were approved by the State Board of Education in November 2016 and was many months in the making. Our sincere thanks to the dozens of CSTA members were involved in its development. Our appreciation is also extended to the California Department of Education, the State Board of Education, the Instructional Quality Commission, and the Science Curriculum Framework and Evaluation Criteria Committee and their staff for their hard work and dedication to produce this document and for their commitment to the public input process. To the many writers and contributors to the Framework CSTA thanks you for your many hours of work to produce a world-class document.
For tips on how to approach this document see our article from December 2016: California Has Adopted a New Science Curriculum Framework – Now What …? If you would like to learn more about the Framework, consider participating in one of the Framework Launch events (a.k.a. Rollout #4) scheduled throughout 2017.
The final publication version (formatted for printing) will be available in July 2017. This document will not be available in printed format, only electronically.
Posted: Monday, March 13th, 2017
The 2017 Award Season is now open! One of the benefits of being a CSTA member is your eligibility for awards as well as your eligibility to nominate someone for an award. CSTA offers several awards and members may nominate individuals and organizations for the Future Science Teacher Award, the prestigious Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award, and the CSTA Distinguished Contributions Award (organizational award). May 9, 2017 is the deadline for nominations for these awards. CSTA believes that the importance of science education cannot be overstated. Given the essential presence of the sciences in understanding the past and planning for the future, science education remains, and will increasingly be one of the most important disciplines in education. CSTA is committed to recognizing and encouraging excellence in science teaching through the presentation of awards to science educators and organizations who have made outstanding contributions in science education in the state and who are poised to continue the momentum of providing high quality, relevant science education into the future. Learn More…
Posted: Monday, March 13th, 2017
CSTA is now accepting applications from regular, preservice, and retired members to serve on our volunteer committees! CSTA’s all-volunteer board of directors invites you to consider maximizing your member experience by volunteering for CSTA. CSTA committee service offers you the opportunity to share your expertise, learn a new skill, or do something you love to do but never have the opportunity to do in your regular day. CSTA committee volunteers do some pretty amazing things: Learn More…
Posted: Monday, March 13th, 2017
by Marian Murphy-Shaw
If you attended an NGSS Rollout phase 1-3 or CDE workshops at CSTA’s annual conference you may recall hearing from Chris Breazeale when he was working with the CDE. Chris has relocated professionally, with his passion for science education, and is now the Executive Director at the Explorit Science Center, a hands-on exploration museum featuring interactive STEM exhibits located at the beautiful Mace Ranch, 3141 5th St. in Davis, CA. Visitors can “think it, try it, and explorit” with a variety of displays that allow visitors to “do science.” To preview the museum, or schedule a classroom visit, see www.explorit.org. Learn More…
Posted: Monday, March 13th, 2017
by Joseph Calmer
Probably like you, NGSS has been at the forefront of many department meetings, lunch conversations, and solitary lesson planning sessions. Despite reading the original NRC Framework, the Ca Draft Frameworks, and many CSTA writings, I am still left with the question: “what does it actually mean for my classroom?”
I had an eye-opening experience that helped me with that question. It came out of a conversation that I had with a student teacher. It turns out that I’ve found the secret to learning how to teach with NGSS: I need to engage in dialogue about teaching with novice teachers. I’ve had the pleasure of teaching science in some capacity for 12 years. During that time pedagogy and student learning become sort of a “hidden curriculum.” It is difficult to plan a lesson for the hidden curriculum; the best way is to just have two or more professionals talk and see what emerges. I was surprised it took me so long to realize this epiphany. Learn More…