Teaching Science as a Foreign Language – the importance of key words
In 2018 the EEF published it’s guidance on ‘Improving Secondary Science’. While the focus is on closing the gap in Science it is fair to say that the summary of recommendations can benefit all pupils. This article seeks to share insight into 2 of the areas suggested – memory and the language of science.
I have heard it muted in a blog post by @MrTSci409 that to study science GCSEs a pupil needs to learn more new vocabulary that for a MFL GCSE. While I’m not sure this has been counted up to the exact word, a quick look in the glossary of a Chemistry textbook confirmed over 300 terms are defined, and the majority of students study 3 sciences, even if across 2 GCSEs.
In ‘Why don’t students like school’ Daniel T Willingham explains the simple model of the mind very succinctly. Our working memory is when we are processing new information but it only has so much space. The information it processes comes from 2 places – the environment around the person and their long term memory. The problem is that the working memory only has so much space. Try and teach your pupils the basics of making a pancake compared with how fractional distillation works and a week later they are likely to have greater recall with the former. This is due to the fact that the majority of the vocabulary used is already in their working memory.
The combination of these two concepts make it start to become glaringly obvious that if our pupils do not have the vocabulary embedded in their long term memory prior to the start of the lesson then there is a limit to what they are able to comprehend in the lesson and then recall in a week, or month’s time. This links to the findings of some of the fundamental research behind why attainment gaps exist in education, whether it is disadvantaged pupils, those with EAL or SEND, or simply down to the language that they are surrounded by at home. So what simple things can we do to support all learners and try and level the playing field?
- Key words are important. Pick (no more than) 3 key words that pupils will need to know in order to be able to access the content of your lesson. These should be shared with pupils at the start and briefly defined. Do not assume they will have remembered them from previous lessons – you may use the same key words in multiple lessons to ensure the language is embedded. You may wish to discuss the etymology and morphology, possible homonyms or where they have come across these words in previous topics. This will help them to recall words they may have in their long term memory in different contexts. Remember when new words are introduced they will be spending their working memory on processing these terms and the capacity to then apply and understand the wider concepts is reduced.
- Repetition is key – there are a vast wealth of resources available to use to support short recall strategies – the more pupil is exposed to the language the more likely they are to commit it to their long term memory. Trying strategies such are:
- Give definition ‘spelling tests’ where you share the definitions of words and they have to write them down – do this from previous topics and mix up random words.
- Use retrieval grids to help them with simple factual recall.
- Gimme 5 starters – 5 questions, 5 words.
- How do you know whether students have picked up the terminology? Play some of these simple games as a plenary:
- How many words… can they come up with to describe a particular phrase or picture (who can come up with the most (correct) ones, can they beat the teacher?)
- Just a minute (or 30 seconds!) at the end of the lesson, or topic. They can do this in small groups to minimise the stigma of having to stand up in front of a class.
- Playing key word Pictionary or Articulate
Most importantly remember, we cannot assume that they will retain the key terminology between lessons. It will have more impact on all pupils to assume they don’t remember words and their meanings and frequently go over key terminology. Whatever context a teacher is working in there will always be a few pupils who won’t have the same grasp of key scientific concepts. If we can address this lesson on lesson over their secondary years then it prevents having to engage the unenthused and disengaged in Year 11 and can only have a positive impact on making all gaps in education that little bit smaller.
Bibliography (May 2021):
Why don’t students like school – Daniel T Willingham
Rosenshine’s Principles in Action – Tom Sherrington