Academic journal article Science and Children

Supporting Academic Language: Simple Strategies Can Encourage the Use of Scientific Vocabulary, Language, and Discussion

Academic journal article Science and Children

Supporting Academic Language: Simple Strategies Can Encourage the Use of Scientific Vocabulary, Language, and Discussion

Article excerpt


Have you ever put your students in groups and listened in on their conversations during science investigations only to be disappointed with the quality of these conversations? Sometimes our students manage to complete their investigations without really using complex and scientific language. Even when they use scientific vocabulary, they don't always build logical arguments to communicate their findings. In this article, I describe how several elementary science teachers addressed this challenge in after-school STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) clubs and a summer STEM camp. The clubs and camps had a goal of increasing academic vocabulary among language learners, but the teachers shared a commitment to discussion and helping students use academic vocabulary to discuss scientific concepts meaningfully. I share the strategies they used to make scientific discussions work.

The clubs included kindergarten to fifth-grade students. Two clubs taught in English included fluent English speakers and English learners. One club taught in Spanish included Mexican-American students who spoke fluent English and were learning STEM concepts in their heritage language of Spanish. The summer camp was entirely in English and included 75 diverse students from grades 3 through 5. These strategies should help you teach students of all language backgrounds, including those who speak English fluently but lack familiarity with norms of scientific discussion.

Developing Language

As science teachers, we have recognized the importance of strong vocabulary instruction for years. Content area vocabulary helps our students understand concepts and discuss them clearly. However, both the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) raise the stakes for us and our students in vocabulary. Students not only have to develop academic vocabulary, they must also develop academic language. This distinction means that we need to prepare students to use academic vocabulary in authentic scientific discussion that allows them to present their ideas coherently and understand and critique the ideas of others. We also want them to do this kind of discussion while they work with each other, without immediate teacher support.

Academic language is the language students use to develop deep content knowledge and share that understanding with others (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages 2006). Academic language goes beyond vocabulary because it involves putting words together to communicate complete ideas (Zweirs, O'Hara, and Pritchard 2014, p. 2). Our students are not just learning word meanings but learning how to use words in sentences and put sentences together to present and critique arguments or articulate questions and hypotheses. The language demands of this type of argumentation are undoubtedly more complex than the demands of learning words in isolation!


For example, under the CCSS, elementary students must interpret words in context (informational reading standard 4), write explanatory pieces that convey complex ideas accurately (writing standard 2), evaluate someone else's reasoning and use of evidence (speaking and listening standard 3), and share findings and evidence in a way that others can follow (speaking and listening standard 4). These complex demands are not unlike the language expectations of the NGSS science and engineering practices (2013) that drive the standards:

* Asking questions and defining problems (1)

* Constructing explanations (6)

* Engaging in argument from evidence (7)

* Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information (8)

Making Scientific Discussions Work

Before the clubs and camp, the teachers met to select the academic vocabulary they wanted to teach. They chose general academic words that they believed would help students discuss science. …

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