Academic journal article Science Scope

English Learners and the Complex Language of Written Science Texts: Practical Advice for Teachers

Academic journal article Science Scope

English Learners and the Complex Language of Written Science Texts: Practical Advice for Teachers

Article excerpt

Before teaching a class on genetic diversity to a group of seventh graders, a teacher decided to closely examine the language of the following paragraph (example 1) she was planning to use in her lesson:

Example 1:

We designate some species as threatened if they are likely to become endangered in the near future within much of its range. Cheetahs are threatened because they have little genetic diversity. In fact, related individuals share 99% of the same genes. This has led to low survivorship, low fertility, and disease in the remaining cheetah populations (Glencoe/McGraw-Hill 2007, p. 225).

After reading the text carefully, looking for sources of difficulty for her students, the teacher noticed that some of her students may have trouble understanding that the connecting word because in the second sentence implies a causal relationship between the nominalization little genetic diversity and cheetahs' status as threatened animals. This supporting detail is further developed in the third sentence after being introduced by the connecting phrase in fact. Finally, the teacher saw that the pronoun this appeared by itself without the nominalization little genetic diversity to which the pronoun refers--a language connection her students would need to infer if they were to comprehend the effects of low genetic diversity described in that sentence.

To support science teachers in addressing some of the sources of complexity of science texts, in this article we focus on nominalizations and connecting words--two language features of expository science texts present in example 1 that are often challenging for English language learners (ELLs) (Fang 2008). To that end, we first briefly define nominalizations and connecting words, including the roles they play in creating scientific meaning, and provide a rationale for why awareness of their presence in science texts is critical. We then discuss two practical strategies teachers can incorporate into their science instruction to support students' science learning and familiarity with the language of science texts. Our goal is to provide science teachers with practical strategies they can use to support their ELLs, standard English learners, and struggling readers in understanding how language is used in texts to communicate scientific meaning (Bunch 2013).

Science standards and language

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States 2013) call attention to the language demands of science texts (Hakuta, Santos, and Fang 2013). In other words, these standards emphasize the need for all students to understand how science texts are structured to present scientific information (Lee, Quinn, and Valdes 2013). Although scientific vocabulary is often assumed to be the main culprit of the difficulties ELLs face when reading complex science texts, other language features, such as nominalizations and connecting words, also contribute to their complexity and require explicit attention in the classroom during instruction (Roman et al. 2016).

Nominalizations originate when verbs (e.g., evolve) and adjectives (e.g., radioactive) are converted into nouns or noun phrases (e.g., evolution, radioactivity, little genetic diversity) to enable scientists to develop taxonomies, synthesize information presented in previous sentences, and develop arguments (Fang 2008). The word survivorship in example 1 is a nominalization derived from the verb "to survive," which allows the authors to refer to the survival rate of cheetahs.

Connecting words are the words used to establish the relationships between phrases and sentences. In example 1, the word because in the second sentence is purposefully used to create the relationship between genetic diversity and cheetah endangerment; in this example, low genetic diversity is the cause of species endangerment. Although connecting words help ELLs and all students understand science texts, they are often omitted to shorten sentences, as computer-generated reading levels (e. …

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