Everyday language helps students learn

by Stephanie Chasteen on August 29, 2008

A new study at Stanford finds that using everyday language helped students learn. The results are only preliminary, since it was a small study and they don’t have a lot of data on students’ english language proficiency, but it is still an interesting and promising bit of research. An excerpt from the Stanford Report tells us:

Usually, elementary school students are expected to learn the concepts and lexicon of photosynthesis—and other scientific subjects—simultaneously.

But according to a recent study by Bryan Brown, an assistant professor of education at Stanford, and Kihyun Ryoo, a doctoral candidate in Stanford’s School of Education, students who learned the basic concepts of photosynthesis in “everyday English” before learning the scientific terms for the phenomenon fared much better on tests than students taught the traditional way.

The traditional approach

To help students master scientific lingo, teachers usually build word walls—interactive displays of the lingo, with graphics illustrating their links to photosynthesis. They hand out vocabulary lists. They use flash cards. They ask students to make up their own definitions.

But Brown and Ryoo say those techniques do not take into account that children learn new words as those words become valuable and meaningful to their lives.

“In contrast to foreign language instruction, where students are learning new ways to express familiar ideas, science instruction often involves the presentation of new ideas expressed through new language,” they write.

This is somewhat related to my old colleague Modesto Tamez’ attitude that vocabulary should be introduced at the end of a lesson, not the beginning (as is traditional). We often present vocab at the beginning of a lesson so we’ve got a common set of vocabulary for talking about a subject. But the result is that students tend to see science as the mastering of a bunch of vocabulary words — here are the words, now I’ll tell you what they mean, and that’s the lesson. Rather, we want students to experience the phenomenon, be intrigued, and then be given the words to talk about what they’re seeing. This is covered in one of my Science Teaching Tips podcasts where Modesto talks about this idea, in an episode called “When Words Fail You.”


Becka September 1, 2008 at 9:26 am

but wait. Isn’t the language precise for a reason? without proper definition the use gets confused. Everyday use of weight and mass for example. Not defining words correctly at the start is only going to increase the burden on the student in the longterm?

sciencegeekgirl September 1, 2008 at 12:07 pm

Language *is* precise for a reason. There’s no reason not to use it at all, because it does help us to refer to common things. But we’re arguing that there *is* a reason not to use jargon/definition words until students have a context for it. Why start with, say, the word “photosynthesis” and then proceed to tell students what photosynthesis is? Why not, instead, start with the process of photosynthesis, and then once the word is needed, introduce it? That reduces the cognitive load on students.

Even with simple words like “weight” and “mass” I’d say that this holds. If you’re introducing the words for the first time, do so in the context of a lesson where the students are using the concepts already. Perhaps someone can give us an example?

Does that answer your concern, Becka? We’re not suggesting not to use the precise language, which was developed for a reason. We’re saying to use it once the context has been developed — rather than introducing them at the beginning and making science into an exercise in memorizing words and definitions.

Becka September 2, 2008 at 6:07 am

Hi. More a query then a concern but it answers it perfectly – Thank you. Keep up the great blog. I enjoy reading it.

Ben September 4, 2008 at 11:23 pm

More importantly, you can’t get research grants if you don’t use impressive words like herpolhode.

SRC September 6, 2008 at 8:23 am

I wanted to respond to Becka re: “mass” and “weight”. A time honored tradition for issues such as this is to introduce some type of ‘cognitive dissonance’. For instance – put someone on a scale here on Earth and do the thought experiment of putting someone on the same scale carried to the Moon. The scale reading will be different – but its the same person! So – we need some language to distinguish between the ‘stuff that makes up the person’ and ‘the scale reading’. You now have a reason for the words “mass” and “weight”. The vocabulary issue is even bigger in areas like chemistry where early in Chapter 1 or 2 words like ‘orbital’ appear – a concept which physicists don’t have to deal with till QM class!

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