Role Of Language In The Science Classroom
Our scene is set in an urban elementary school that uses English across the curriculum. The teacher is teaching `Feeding habits of birds' to her children in class 5.
She is a die-hard worker and uses a range of strategies and teaching aids incorporating video clippings, CD ROM etc. At the end of the 40 minute period, she gives homework from the pages of the textbook, one of the questions being "Fill in the blank: ______________ helps butterflies to suck nectar from flowers." Next day, almost all children come up with the answer "Proboscis." The teacher is glad because this exactly is the term used in the textbook. A few days later, the same question finds itself in the end of lesson test. Most children have mis-spelt the term; the teacher is disappointed and scores the answer as wrong.
Such situations are not very uncommon in Third World countries where English is not the mother tongue of the children. Let me set aside an analysis as to what all have gone wrong in the abovementioned episode, but confine myself to one important aspect that is largely overemphasised at the primary school level: the level of language complexity in the primary science curriculum. Let me clearly admit that the article centres around the science instructional processes in school systems where the language spoken in children's homes is not English. The above-mentioned teacher has penalised her students for wrong spelling. In other words, the teacher has given [undue] weightage to linguistic capability instead of concept understanding. Such a shift in priority results in `low' self-esteem of children. However this doesn't mean that we have to ignore children's spelling mistakes altogether like when they write `canon' for `canine' in a lesson on human teeth. Empirical research findings and my own experience in South Asian and African school systems suggest to me that complex scientific terminology can be avoided in primay science curricula, when alternatives are available.#
Let me now take you back on my time machine, to the year 1988. Botswana. I am teaching `Total Internal Reflection' to my Form 4 students [who will take the Cambridge Overseas Certificate Exams. in Physical Science the following year]. I use a whole class demo to enable all the 23 students observe Refraction of Light in steps [as shown in the following fig.]:
Things seem to go on smoothly during the lesson and I am happy that my formative assessment gives the expected outcomes. But alas, my happiness comes to an abrupt end just 2 days later when students return their end of the unit test paper: they have answered the question on `critical angle' poorly. In a nutshell, I fail in the `litmus test'. The usual Southern African horizon isn't going to enchant me until I do something to redefine my instructional approach. After several hours of contemplation, an idea suddenly springs from somewhere in my subconscious mind: Why not make use of day to day language to teach the concept?##
Next morning I enter my class, with a very enthusiastic `boyish' briskness and promise to help them out "within the period." I play a video clip that shows a man being rushed to the ICU of a hospital immediately after a severe road accident. I ask my students to describe the scene in simple, communicative English. Students talk a lot and come up with a variety of descriptions. I continue my interaction by asking, "What would have happened if he was not admitted in the ICU?" The interaction continues such that the students are able to draw a similarity between the two events, viz. the road accident and the refraction of light [the 3 stages depicted in the fig.]. Now my students are easily able to view the (i) "critical condition" of the accident victim as the final stage of survival if not taken to ICU and (ii) "critical angle" as the final stage of refraction of light from a denser to a rarer (or less dense) medium. A posttest given after this teaching learning approach gives the "proof of the pudding" at last. A sigh of relief!#
Hence, what I think is that in any science classroom, linguistic capability of students should not be a priority, but can be used to advantage if the language element can take the science concept closer to student's day-to-day experience, beyond the four walls of the classroom.
by P. R. Guruprasad
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Sep 29, 2009
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