May/June 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 7

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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Robert Victor

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