Vocabulary in Science
Specialised vocabulary in secondary school/Middle School
Harmon, Hedrick and Wood (2005) divide Science vocabulary into three main areas in textbooks: technical (e.g. photosynthesis), non-technical (e.g. component) and procedural (e.g. be the result of). Research by Taboarda (2012) found that knowledge of technical vocabulary in Science was a better predictor of reading comprehension in Science than general vocabulary knowledge. Ardasheva and Tretter (2017) investigated vocabulary in Science at secondary school for new students. Using a Physics textbook, Ardasheva and Tretter (2017) selected and categorised the lexis related to Newton’s laws of motion based on a 76-page chapter in a textbook. Categorisation of the specialised Science vocabulary was carried out by adapting a schema from Miller (2009, cited in Ardasheva & Tretter, 2017) on levels of difficulty of scientific words. The focus was on developing a word list of lexical items which might cause comprehension difficulties for newcomers. Table 5.4 has categories and examples of Science-specific vocabulary identified from Run and jump, an activity which introduced Newton’s laws of motion through activities such as experiments and tasks. What is interesting here is the sheer range of specialised vocabulary in this chapter from the Science textbook.
Table 5.4 Categorisations and examples of Science-specific vocabulary from Ardasheva and Tretter (2017, p. 7) adapted from Miller (2009)
Part of the categorisation involves deciding what kind of comprehension difficulties would be caused by scientific vocabulary. Some items may cause problems because they have everyday meanings and scientific meanings, such as act and travel. Ardasheva and Tretter (2017) also identify cultural references from the text, such as Newton, Galileo, tackle and football, which would be new concepts for learners, as well as general words that are not scientific but would be new for learners, such as backward (for directions) and neglect (low frequency lexis).
As well as this identification and categorisation exercise, Ardasheva and Tretter (2017) used qualitative methods such as interviews and observations to find out more about how the class teacher worked with science-specific vocabulary in class, both before and after the intervention outlined by Ardasheva and Tretter (2017). The intervention involved four Grade 9 and 10 classes taught by the same teacher for students aged between 14 and 19 years old, and was based on a ’learning routines cycle’. This weekly cycle began with definitions such as descriptions, examples, drawings, gestures and discussion. The cycle continued through the week with activities such as matching pictures, written homework, card games, charades, other games and quizzes where students completed a cloze exercise. Pre and post-tests demonstrated learning of technical terms in the course of the programme, and Ardasheva and Tretter (2017) advocate for time on technical vocabulary in class. They also point out that older learners who are beginning their English language studies were faced with ’dramatically more complex’ (p. 15) science than younger learners at elementary levels.
Fang (2006) investigates technical and everyday vocabulary in Science in schools, and notes that technical vocabulary can include everyday vocabulary used in combination, such as school of fish and geological fault, to express a scientific term. Harmon et al. (2005) find that, ’The heavy use of scientific terminology to explain concepts […] raises the readability level of science textbooks’ (p. 271). Note that ’raising the readability level’ in this context is not a desired outcome, because the higher the readability level, the more difficult the text is to read. Kim (2016), in an article on talking to learn in a science class, notes that research on specialised, technical vocabulary of science remains limited particularly when it comes to low-literacy bilingual learners.