Gaining Access to the Language of Science: A Research Partnership for Disciplined, Discursive Ways to Select and Assess Vocabulary Knowledge

By Hayden, H. Emily; Singh, Anupma et al. | Reading Horizons (Online), January 1, 2019 | Go to article overview

Gaining Access to the Language of Science: A Research Partnership for Disciplined, Discursive Ways to Select and Assess Vocabulary Knowledge


Hayden, H. Emily, Singh, Anupma, Eades-Baird, Michelle, Reading Horizons (Online)


Several years ago Brown, Ryoo, and Rodriguez (2010) posed a question and a challenge to researchers in science and literacy education: "If students are struggling to acquire the language of science, how can science education continue to neglect ... language instruction?" (p. 1490). Scientific language is replete with specialized vocabulary (Honig, 2012) to describe, compare, categorize, and explain; and while these features help organize content they also make learning in science highly challenging (Brown, et al., 2010). The complexity of science language and the difficulty of mastery contribute to disparities in science achievement across diverse student groups, and place unique demands on students to learn and use specific disciplinary language orally and in print forms (Gee, 2005). If we hope to equalize access to science content across diverse groups, providing access to the language is a critical starting point because, "oral and written language is the symbol system most often used by scientists ... [it] shapes science ideas and understanding" (Hand, et al., 2003, p. 608). p. 608).

Perhaps recognizing this need, the U.S. Common Core State Standards (CCSS) (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010) renewed emphasis on vocabulary learning across disciplines, with science standards that require definitions, as well as ability to determine meanings of key words and domain-specific words and phrases used in specific science contexts. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) (National Research Council, 2011) also emphasize language for communication and learning in science, for: asking questions, defining problems, constructing explanations, and engaging in argument from evidence (Lee, Quinn, & Valdes, 2013). These standards emphasize receptive and productive knowledge of science language: ability to understand science words when encountering them in reading and hearing them in speech, and ability to use science language in writing and speaking. Such multifaceted proficiency with words demonstrates ownership, or the ability to use words in all expressions of language: reading, writing, speaking, and listening (Kamil & Hiebert, 2005; Nagy & Townsend, 2012). How can teachers teach and assess science vocabulary so students can access and develop ownership of science language?

Purpose

This study analyzed a brief assessment designed to capture development of vocabulary knowledge in one science classroom. We chose the science classroom as the setting for developing this assessment because mastery of science language has been identified as highly challenging for many students, and lack of mastery of language in science is particularly detrimental to learning science concepts and content. Because standards emphasized both receptive and productive language, we assessed students' abilities to perceive word meanings receptively and use those word meanings productively by writing connected text (Kamil & Hiebert, 2005; Nagy & Townsend, 2012). Through examination of specific practices in vocabulary assessment within one middle-school science classroom, our goal was to develop an assessment that could capture students' developing ownership of important science language, and thus improve access to science learning. We drew on several decades of research that 1) suggests significant revisions to the ways we teach and assess vocabulary learning, and 2) calls for research that explores and models the varied dimensions of vocabulary learning and knowledge. We asked two research questions: 1) How effective is a brief classroom vocabulary assessment at capturing the development of receptive and productive vocabulary knowledge in one science classroom? and 2) How can varied dimensions of vocabulary learning and knowledge be assessed and modeled?

Framework

Because this research took place in an authentic classroom setting, we wanted to design an assessment that accounted for the variations and accommodations of classroom life. …

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