Evidence Based Science Education

This blog will examine research and evidence as it relates to science education and science education issues. It is an attempt to bring together the science of education and the practice of education.

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Wonderful Language of Science, beyond vocabulary and reading and writing across the curriculum.

For over two decades now we have heard about the importance of reading and writing across the curriculum; as if teachers of science and social studies, the arts and PE never had students reading and writing before the early 1990s. This renewed push for literacy led to schools establishing reading and writing “power standards” that all teachers were expected to show how they lessons were addressing.

The problem is that language is about more than reading and writing. What about speaking and listening? What about developing strategies for accessing and evaluating the validity of information? The way we approach and use language in various content areas is different. A student can’t just take the reading and thinking strategies they learn in a western literature class and apply them directly to reading science textbook or even an article in journal or newspaper. Science, as well as all other content areas, has its own specialized technical vocabulary, writing style, presentation style, and specific way of discoursing.

We know that science has its own language. Often it is a great way of expressing abstract ideas, at other times it is a concise way of expressing complex phenomena. Language is often the gate keeper of science. If you develop the language key you get to pass through gates and be a part of the order. And if you don’t develop the language, and develop it early and often on your own, you are forever an outsider looking in, not really understanding what is going on, forever banned to science illiteracy.

In essays and lectures Neils Bohr was constantly emphasizing the role played by language in science and in our understanding of nature. Scientific investigations, Bohr pointed out, are not exclusively formal, mathematical affairs for they also involve informal discussions in which key concepts are explored and understood. In Bohr's words, "We are suspended in language in such a way that we cannot say what is up and what is down".

In many science classes teachers implicitly teach the language of science, simply because they use the language in their class or make certain requirements for written work. But because this language piece is implicit and not explicit, many students don't get the language of science. From my own anecdotal observation, and I don't know of any specific research that backs it up, many students struggle and fail in science, not because they struggle with the content, but because the content isn't accessible to them because the language of science gets in the way. It is almost like throwing a kid into a class in a foreign language that they have never heard or had any experience with and expecting them to grasp content in the class.

Unfortunately student struggles with the language of science is often overlooked, and most science teachers do not have any specialized training to help them teach the language of science. In my search for resources for science teachers in the language of science all of the resources can be boiled down to three simple aspects: reading a textbook (look at headings and bold words), writing a lab report (don’t use the first person), and vocabulary. As if this is all there is to the language of science. There is almost nothing out there to support teachers in teaching the discourse and informal discussions that lead to true understanding and insight that Niels Bohr was referring to.

Take for example the way many resources even simplify the idea of science vocabulary (the one area language that science teachers are most comfortable with). One resource states that scientific vocabulary is nothing more than a hodge podge of little words linked together, and if you know the little words you will understand the big words. While true for many words and terms, for many more this just isn’t the case. And even when it is the case the ideas expressed by the big words often have a deeper more nuanced meaning than just combining the little words. There are also resources that stress the importance of knowing Latin roots as the key to scientific literacy. Again if only it were that simple. While many scientific terms can be traced back to Latin, it is not enough to simply know the Latin roots to gain access to the wonderful language of science.

Let’s take a closer look at what we know about language in general and see how we might apply it to science in particular. To make things simple we can think about three important parts of language: Vocabulary, Grammar and conventions, and syntax. For all three of these science has some specific rules that students must learn. Again taking the example of vocabulary, we know that people don’t learn vocabulary by copying down words from a dictionary or glossary, and people don’t learn new vocabulary just because the word is bold in a text book. We also know the central and important role that vocabulary plays in learning and understanding. Going back to Neils Bohr, in reference to quantum mechanics, he said that we cannot understand and discuss a phenomena until we have common language to describe it. But to learn this language you have to actively use it in regular discourse.

Teachers must model and encourage active discourse of ideas and the use of scientific language in their class. The cognitive process of acquiring language, be it the specialized language of science or learning a new language is an active process not the passive filling of the empty vessel that would be so much easier.
So how are you going to be intentional about how the language of science is developed in your curriculum and instruction? What specific supports you can offer for students who struggle with this language piece? How will you make sure that students are actively discoursing about science? If we don’t go beyond reading and writing across the curriculum and start intentional planning for the language of science we will always condemn a set of students to scientific illiteracy.