Helping students learn the language of science

Science students at all grade levels often struggle with the vocabulary. It’s as if we’re all SLLs—Science Language Learners. Textbooks and websites are full of specialized words that challenge our students. Some are technical and relate specifically to science (e.g., photosynthesis, thermodynamics, plate tectonics) while others have meanings in science that differ from common usage (e.g., theory, hypothesis, matter). Sometimes we think that students understand a word, only to find out on an assessment that they are confused. For example, my middle school students often interchanged the words medium and median, and they didn’t realize that media was the plural of medium. No wonder the room was full of puzzled looks sometimes.
There are many strategies that can help students with vocabulary (see below), most of which involve reading and writing. But for students to understand and use new words, they also need to hear and say them. I picked up an idea from a colleague who taught at the elementary level. Bruce suggested that for more complex or unfamiliar words, have the students repeat the words several times out loud, emphasizing the syllables by clapping or tapping them out: pho-to-syn-the-sis. I tried this with my middle and high school classes. The students seemed more comfortable with the words, and it seemed to help them with spelling, too.
So I was really interested in an article in the current issue of the Journal of College Science Teaching: On the Road to Science Literacy: Building Confidence and Competency in Technical Language Through Choral Repetition  (all NSTA members, including K-12, have online access to this publication). Choral repetition in college science classes? I was intrigued. Was Bruce onto something?

The authors set the stage for their study by describing the issues with science vocabulary. They go on to define choral repetition as “…the instructor modeling a target word or phrase orally while students listen and then leading the students in several choral repetitions” which is similar to my colleague’s suggestion. But they went further than my action research and did a more formal study of the process.
As with research articles, the authors describe their methodology and quantitative findings (significant differences between the definition pre- and posttests), and implications. There is also perceptual feedback from the students. Among other findings, students reported that the strategy helped them remember the terms, it was a cue that the term was important, and it was something that would apply to other courses. “You are not as afraid to use the big words when you understand them better.” “If you say it out loud you will remember a little bit better because you can see something, but you won’t know how to pronounce it, but if you hear it, you can know how to pronounce it, and if you know how to pronounce it, you can remember it and it is easier to spell.
So, if you’re looking for a strategy to try this year to help your students with the language of science, this might be a useful supplement to graphic organizers, word walls, and definition charts. Simple, no-cost, and no specialized PD required!
See also:
Words, words, and more words
Boosting science vocabulary

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1 Response to Helping students learn the language of science

  1. lilmackshearer says:

    I love this idea! As the school year approaches, I am looking for fresh ideas to enhance my methods. It makes sense that the students assume that if it is rehearsed chorally, it is an important word or phrase to understand.I am a middle school teacher, so it will be interesting to see how my students respond. My only concern is how to find a way to connect meaning to the word when it is introduced so that the students learn the word AND the meaning effectively.

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