When I am teaching I use a lot of video, images, simulations, demonstrations and animations to try and get across abstract ideas. Part of this is because I will admit that my clarity when talking off the top of my head isn't the clearest and the other is that I can't afford to let my students' understanding of science be held back just because they don't grasp the language.
And it is often obvious to me that students are not held back by it in my class. When I ask questions my students will have the answer, but sometimes not the words. 'Thingies' might feature, hand waving to show a wave or fists coming together to show the movement of particles, hands parting to show the spread of energy or whatever it is. There are very abstract ideas building in the students' minds that they are not quite able to express - yet.
But with practice it will come. Until then I will be pleased that they don't refuse to answer just because they don't have the specialist vocabulary and delighted that they are getting to grips with abstract ideas.
As science teachers we can't ignore the fact that we have to introduce the vast vocabulary. The words that are specialist to science have specific meaning and why would we use the description when we can be much more concise and use the word.
"Threshold of human hearing" vs "The highest frequency a human ear can detect".
"Vacuum" vs "Absence of particles" vs "space that doesn't contain anything".I went to a session at the ASE conference in Liverpool in 2012 about literacy run by advisors at Camden and Enfield LEA. It was interesting that in their work with lower ability groups they did not only teach students about key scientific language, but used techniques to look at words that described size and scale and words that described varying confidence levels related to a scientific conclusion. It added another dimension to the literacy that we must approach when teaching science. They did also show that time spent working on the literacy of a class and putting in the ground work when approaching tasks does pay off in terms of the quality of the student work.
They also introduced the idea of nominalisation to me. This is where students use the word that describes the process, rather than try and describe it in more words. It is incredibly useful in helping students write concisely. In this case, it is important that students have the specialist vocabulary in the first place.
Something else they mentioned, which had also been brought up many times at my school, was allowing students to talk over ideas before they write. Talk is far less formal, but it allows you a chance to sort your ideas out. By doing this students can organise their thoughts before having to think about their writing. Discussing with your partner and thinking out loud is something that I model regularly in my teaching these days.
Learning science when you are low vocabulary student poses a particular difficulty. EAL and deaf students who may only pick up a few words could easily be confused by the topic of the lesson when they don't understand new vocabulary. My husband attended LEA training on literacy and spoke to a teacher who worked at a deaf school. The teacher explained that images were vitally important when teaching low vocabulary students so that they could understand what the lesson was about even if they could not grasp all the language in your first explanation. When teaching EAL students with particularly low vocabulary a while ago I try to start my presentations with an image and always use images throughout presentations that relate to the topic.
Then we have the words that have every day usage and scientific meanings. I have a student who likes to talk about momentum, what is momentum I ask? When is power appropriate and when is energy a better word? What about the difference between current and voltage? Weight and gravity is a particular difficulty. I find this a particular difficulty in physics, but is is not restricted to that subject. I find myself correcting the difference between gene and allele a lot. Yield and rate seem obvious to me, but less so to some students. When is an atom and ion, and why can't it be both?
Ultimately though students are going to be tested on their ability to communicate science through their writing.
When I first used the SEGUE and taught lessons according to the 5E lesson structure I was forced to allow students the opportunity to write about their own ideas in their own words each lesson. The results were dramatic. Students wanted to write more, and write more deeply. They welcomed feedback and their confidence developed.
Strangely I now see the importance of introducing the 6 mark questions into GCSE science. It has made me increase the number of long writing opportunities I create for my students in key stage 4. I have created many exit tickets and square questions that give the students the space to write their own ideas and link them. It has opened my eyes to how important this is to highlight misconceptions and misuse of language. Although I do think that some 6 mark questions are on the strange side and not entirely clear on what they expect from the students.
At GCSE it can be difficult to find opportunities for students to develop their writing and talk, but http://www.engagingscience.eu/en/ resources looks like a great set of resources to help.
It is important that we don't allow any of the difficulties to distract us from the vital important of teaching students the language of science. We have a duty to ensure that students appreciate the precision needed when communicating science ideas. Without that it can be easy to misinterpret the science being communicated. Although I hate that GCSE is often about students learning to use the right words in the right order, I also appreciate that this is a skill scientists require.
We can't allow all our scientific decisions to be made solely by scientists, but in order to have a dialogue with them we need to understand the words they use.