Learning Science—Through Everyday Language

By Sean Cavanagh — August 19, 2008 1 min read
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Few concepts are as fundamental to students’ understanding of biology and plant life as photosynthesis. And everybody knows what photosynthesis is, right?


Well, a study published this year makes the case for introducing students to scientific concepts and phenomena, such as photosynthesis (the process by which plants use light energy to convert water and sunlight into oxygen and high-energy carbohydrates) in plain English. The study, published in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching, found that students who were introduced to science concepts in “everyday English” before learning the exact scientific language fared better on tests than students who were not taught that way.

The research was conducted by Bryan A. Brown and Kihyun Ryoo of Stanford University. They worked with 49 minority students, randomly assigned to two groups, one taught with everyday language before scientific vocabulary, and a control group taught with scientific language. The study used computer software to introduce the 5th grade students to science in different ways.

The study shows that “teaching using a content-first approach yields greater conceptual understanding, as expressed in everyday language, as well as an improved ability to understand and use science language,” the authors say.

“The findings of this study have the potential to contribute to theories on scientific language, classroom pedagogy, and computer-based learning.”

Researchers have been exploring how students express basic scientific ideas in nonscientific language for years, as the Stanford authors note. Educators and advocates have looked at how they can capitalize on this nascent understanding and build on it. One organization conducting research in this area is the Cheche Konnen Center, in Cambridge, Mass., which I wrote about earlier this year for our Tech Counts report.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.