September 2016 – Vol. 29 No. 1

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.

Written by Donna Ross

Donna Ross is Associate Professor of Science Education at San Diego State University.

2 Responses

  1. Thanks for the great summary of how to use academic language to scaffold science instruction. Not only is this important information for our preservice teachers but it is an excellent reminder for veteran instructors as well. Our school is focusing school wide on accountable talk to increase critical thinking in all content areas. Academic Language is a key component of this.

  2. I agree with what you said in all aspects, but it is a very hard thing to accomplish all of this as a new teacher. Many of these ideas take some years of experience with feelling comfortable with their classes and what they teach. We all need to step into our own style of teaching! Having a seasoned teacher as a mentor is also one way of helping a new teacher with all of these techniques you mentioned. We have also used the aide of our English teachers in helping with some of the science words in their classes. We have a school word wall where common words are put up each month that contain words that have meanings for both science and english and have all of the definitions listed and the areas that the meanings pertain to. I have taught science for 28 years in junior high and am still finding new ways to present all of the strategies that you mentioned in your article.

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California Science Assessment Update

Posted: Wednesday, October 12th, 2016

by Jessica Sawko

In June 2016 California submitted a waiver application to discontinue using the old CST (based on 1998 standards) and conduct two years of pilot and field tests (in spring 2017 and 2018, respectively) of the new science assessment designed to support our state’s current science standards (California Next Generation Science Standards (CA-NGSS) adopted in 2013). The waiver was requested because no student scores will be provided as a part of the pilot and field tests. The CDE received a response from the U.S. Department of Education (ED) on September 30, 2016, which provides the CDE the opportunity to resubmit a revised waiver request within 60 days. The CDE will be revising the waiver request and resubmitting as ED suggested.

At its October 2016 North/South Assessment meetings CDE confirmed that there will be no administration of the old CST in the spring of 2017. (An archive of the meeting is available at Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Some ways to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service in your classroom

Posted: Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

by Carol Peterson

1) To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, Google has put together a collection of virtual tours combining 360-degree video, panoramic photos and expert narration. It’s called “The Hidden Worlds of the National Parks” and is accessible right from the browser. You can choose from one of five different locales, including the Kenai Fjords in Alaska and Bryce Canyon in Utah, and get a guided “tour” from a local park ranger. Each one has a few virtual vistas to explore, with documentary-style voiceovers and extra media hidden behind clickable thumbnails. Ideas are included for use in classrooms. Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

2016 Award Recipients – Join CSTA in Honoring Their Accomplishments

Posted: Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

CSTA is pleased to announce the winners of the 2016 CSTA Awards for Distinguished Contributions, Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award, 2014 and 2015 PAEMST-Science recipients from California, and the 2016 California PAEMST Finalists. The following individuals and organizations will be honored during the 2016 California Science Education Conference  on October 21- 23 in Palm Springs. This year’s group of awardees are truly outstanding. Please join us in congratulating them!

Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award

John Keller

John Keller

The Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award honors an individual who has made a significant contribution to science education in the state and who, through years of leadership and service, has truly made a positive impact on the quality of science teaching. This year’s recipient is John Keller, Ph.D. Dr. Keller is Associate Professor, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Co-Director, Center for Engineering, Science, and Mathematics Education, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. In her letter of recommendation, SDSU science education faculty and former CSTA board member Donna Ross wrote: “He brings people together who share the desire to make a difference in the development and implementation of programs for science teaching. Examples of these projects include the Math and Science Teaching Initiative (MSTI), Noyce Scholars Program, Western Regional Noyce Initiative, and the Science Teacher and Researcher (STAR) program.” Through his work, he has had a dramatic impact on science teacher education, both preservice and in-service, in California, the region, and the country. He developed and implemented the STEM Teacher and Researcher Program which aims to produce excellent K-12 STEM teachers by providing aspiring teachers with opportunities to do authentic research while helping them translate their research experience into classroom practice. SFSU faculty member Larry Horvath said it best in his letter:“John Keller exemplifies the best aspects of a scientist, science educator, and mentor. His contributions to science education in the state of California are varied, significant, and I am sure will continue well into the future.” Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

NGSS: Making Your Life Easier

Posted: Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

by Peter A’hearn

Wait… What?

NGSS is a big shift. Teachers need to learn new content, figure out how this whole engineering thing relates to science, and develop new unit and lesson plans. How could NGSS possibly make life easier?

The idea that NGSS could make our lives easier came to me during the California State NGSS Rollout #1 Classroom Example lesson on chromatography. I have since done this lesson with high school chemistry students and it made me think back to having my own students do chromatography. I spent lots of time preparing to make sure the experiment went well and achieved the “correct” result. I pre-prepared the solutions and organized and prepped the materials. I re-wrote and re-wrote again the procedure so there was no way a kid could get it wrong. I spent 20 minutes before the lab modeling all of the steps in class, so there was no way to do it wrong. Except that it turns out there were many. Learn More…

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the K-12 science specialist in the Palm Springs Unified School District and is Region 4 Director for CSTA.

Celestial Highlights, September 2016

Posted: Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

by Robert C. Victor. Twilight sky maps by Robert D. Miller. Graph of evening planet setting times by Dr. Jeffrey L. Hunt 

Our evening twilight chart for September, depicting the sky about 40 minutes after sunset from SoCal, shows brilliant Venus remaining low, creeping from W to WSW and gaining a little altitude as the month progresses. Its close encounter within 2.5° N of Spica on Sept. 18 is best seen with binoculars to catch the star low in bright twilight. The brightest stars in the evening sky are golden Arcturus descending in the west, and blue-white Vega passing just north of overhead. Look for Altair and Deneb completing the Summer Triangle with Vega. The triangle of Mars-Saturn-Antares expands as Mars seems to hold nearly stationary in SSW as the month progresses, while Saturn and Antares slink off to the SW. Learn More…

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Written by Robert Victor

Robert Victor

Robert C. Victor was Staff Astronomer at Abrams Planetarium, Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing skywatching opportunities for school children in and around Palm Springs, CA. Robert is a member of CSTA.