Text and talk in the science classroom constitute two of the primary vehicles by which students gain knowledge and make meaning. Yet, both involve the unique language of science. Presentations focused on science texts addressed the importance of text for engaging in investigations; the functions and challenges of its specific forms; and ways that teachers can help students unpack science texts, gain knowledge, and express their own ideas through writing. In addition to reading and writing science texts, students engage in science talk that includes among various purposes: reporting, explaining, questioning, and arguing. Scientific discourse was discussed in a number of presentations representing different ways of thinking about this topic—a rationale for thinking of discourse in terms of reasoning skills and understanding discourse in terms of the language skills it requires of students. Both presentations addressed what it takes and what it means to engage in oral scientific discourse in a classroom structured around authentic design and science.
A number of common themes emerged from the presentations that commented on scientific discourse:
- Reading, writing, and well-structured talk are all authentic aspects of engaging in the sense-making process in science classrooms.
- Science texts come in many forms and have unique and challenging words, grammar, patterns, and representations.
- Teachers of science have an important role to play in helping their students become scientifically literate, and they need certain knowledge, skills, and strategies to do this.
- Science reading, writing, and discourse are uniquely complex, explicit, and precise and require students to use particular sets of receptive and productive language skills.
- Engaging with science texts and productive oral discourse requires teachers to spend time allowing their students to grapple with challenging texts and ideas.
THE IMPORTANCE OF SCIENCE TEXTS FOR “DOING” SCIENCE
Jonathan Osborne, Stanford University, argued that science is primarily about ideas or concepts, and that fully understanding scientific concepts requires engaging in reading, writing, talking, and drawing, in addition to participating in hands-on experiences. Further, each of these activities is essential to the eight scientific practices enumerated in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), particularly Practice 8: Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information. Science texts not only convey information about particular content and scientific phenomena, but also convey ideas about the central activities of science. According to Catherine O’Connor, Boston University, the language of science texts expresses how scientists expand and refine their ideas and find new ways to solve persistent problems. She said the language requires readers to master not only basic and intermediate literacy skill, but also to understand the intricate, discipline specific literacy skills. Science texts, especially textbooks and journal articles, are constructed using complex sentence structures that can be particularly challenging for students. Annemarie Palincsar of University of Michigan similarly noted in her presentation:
Science texts are a good example of the challenging text to which the framers of the CCSS refer. These texts often present information that is conceptually rich, but also conceptually dense and abstract; they use terminology that is unfamiliar to many students; and they present explanations using language in ways that students do not encounter in their everyday uses of language or in their reading of fictional and narrative text (Palincsar, 2013, p. 10).
O’Connor indicated that science texts are unique in a number of ways that require science teachers to assist their students in learning how to use and construct meaning from them. First, as described in Chapter 2, science texts are
usually multimodal, including prose, as well as diagrams, charts, mathematics, or other types of visual representations. Moreover, these elements cannot be understood on their own and are only understood in relation to one another. Second, science texts are often lexically dense, when compared with texts in other subjects, reflecting the conventions of scientific writing. Third, the sciences have particular discipline-specific terms and concepts that require the expertise of teachers in that discipline.
Types of Science Text
Throughout the workshop, presenters noted that students may encounter science writing through their textbooks, but also through a variety of outside sources, such as science journals, popular magazines, or Web-based content. Even science textbooks written at an appropriate reading level contain particular concepts, language, and constructions that may require teacher scaffolding for comprehension. Publications other than textbooks can be useful, but may contain language or sentence construction that is unfamiliar to students.
Within both textbooks and other sources, science writing is designed to convey meaning for particular purposes. Mary Schleppegrell, University of Michigan, stated that science texts often fall into certain genres based on the purpose of that text, and these various types may be found within a single source, such as a textbook, that students would encounter. She explained these genres include definition, explanation, recount/procedure, and argument, and each serves a particular purpose in conveying scientific information:
- Description: To define something or tell what it is like
- Explanation: To tell how or why something works or is as it is
- Recount/procedure: To tell about what happened or what someone did
- Argument: To persuade that something should be done
Schleppegrell pointed out explanation texts are typically characterized by technicality, dense text, development of information from phrase to phrase, meaningful connections between phrases, and words and phrases that convey author perspective. Each genre contains identifiable patterns of word choice that prove useful in deciphering their intent and meaning.
In her earlier presentation, O’Connor focused more specifically on the grammatical construction of science texts, describing her work examining sources of science information beyond traditional textbooks, such as science journals or
popular magazines with science topics. She explained the complex grammatical constructions in these texts tend to fall into families of certain types of constructions. One type is the “Comparatives.” These types of sentences include overt comparative language, such as “smaller than” or “fewer than,” but also covert comparatives, in which a comparison is implied, but not made explicit. A second family of grammatical constructions is the “Conditionals.” These are sentences that indicate situations or conditions necessary for a second part of the statement to be true; for example, “Had it survived to adulthood, it would have been 6 feet long.” According to O’Connor, “Complex constructions like these are important: They signal logic and purpose, and temporal and quantitative relations, among other things.”
One particular form of the conditional construction is the “counterfactual conditional,” O’Connor said. This type of sentence may begin with a phrase, such as “were it not for …,” a phrase which is formulaic and fixed in its construction. These sentences can be difficult to interpret, but can also be rephrased using more everyday language, such as “If _______ hadn’t been …” or “If _____ was not….” O’Connor stated, “So understanding complex constructions like the comparative (whether covert or overt) and the conditional (whether counterfactual or not) is part of learning to obtain, evaluate, and communicate information.”
The Role of Teachers in Using Science Texts
Osborne focused on the important role that science teachers play in helping their students to become scientifically literate. He suggested that science teachers are responsible for focusing on discipline-specific literacy and need specific knowledge and teaching strategies to achieve it, stating:
The basic point that I think I would like science teachers to have is that if you are talking about making people scientifically literate, literacy means what it means…. There is a fundamental sense of literacy … which is the ability to construe meaning from text and to construct meaning with text, as well…. The job of a teacher is to help people or students learn how to construct that particular meaning … and the way in which that is done is different depending on which discipline you happen to be in.
Osborne identified key pedagogical content and strategies that science teachers need related to helping students understand the language of science text. First, he stressed that knowledge of pedagogical strategies matters for student outcomes, citing the work of Sadler and his colleagues (2013). Teachers need knowledge of instructional and diagnostic tasks, knowledge of student cognition, and common
FIGURE 3-1 How knowledge of pedagogy supports teaching practices.
SOURCE: Osborne (2013).
difficulties that students often manifest, as well as knowledge of a range of explanations for and ways of representing and communicating scientific ideas. He also argued that teachers need a repertoire of instructional strategies, including how to activate prior knowledge, promote comprehension, and build recall abilities. As illustrated in Figure 3-1, each aspect of teacher knowledge enables the application of practices that continue to inform teacher knowledge in an ongoing cycle.
Osborne explained some specific methods that teachers can use with science texts to promote recall of information: “Anticipation Guides” to identify and build on prior knowledge (Smith, 1978), Directed Activities Related to Text (DARTs)1 to promote comprehension, and the Frayer model (Frayer et al., 1969) and Cornell notes (Pauk et al., 2008). All emphasize the need for students to be reflective when they engage with science texts. Further, Osborne stressed that teachers can help students become critical readers of science texts, but cautioned
1For more information on DARTs, see https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/interacting-texts-directed-activities-related-texts-darts [March 2014].
that this guidance requires teachers to have sufficient expertise and subject-matter knowledge, a current challenge that requires realistic expectations. He ended his remarks emphasizing that science is about ideas that have to be communicated in written and oral language practices specific to the discipline. He said these overarching principles frame the need for a set of core knowledge and strategies that teachers can use to help their students succeed.
O’Connor emphasized that teachers need not focus on teaching grammar, but rather devote class time to allowing students to grapple with the meaning of complex sentences. She shared strategies that are being used in Lily Wong Fillmore’s work with English language learners. In Fillmore’s work, teachers can have students paraphrase a text using their own words, by encouraging them to “look up” to the storyline and “look down” into the details. Although teachers may be tempted to summarize and present the meaning of a text to students when it involves challenging language, allowing students to dig deeper into science texts can impart particular benefits to them, according to O’Connor. Namely, the overarching messages of these texts impart knowledge about the work of science/engineering, the texts provide facts and arguments needed to support these story lines, and finally, the contents of these texts help structure teachers’ efforts to support students grappling with complex language. Paraphrasing complex text and the resulting discussions can be key parts of the meaning-making process in science.
Mary Schleppegrell and Annemarie Palincsar of the University of Michigan expanded upon ways that elementary teachers can help students understand lexically dense texts by analyzing the language and patterns that authors use in science writing. Several bodies of literature have informed the development of the curriculum Functional Grammar Analysis, including systemic functional linguistic theory (Halliday, 1994; Schleppegrell, 2001, 2004), as well as theories that emphasize the linkages between form and meaning in reading situated within a sociocultural context (August and Shanahan, 2008; García and Cuellar, 2006; Goldman and Rakestraw, 2000; Graesser et al., 2003; Sweet and Snow, 2003; Vygotsky, 1986). Further, Schleppegrell and Palincsar have drawn upon the work of Putnam and Borko (2000), which has shown the importance of using teachers’ own classrooms as powerful contexts for their learning.
Informed by these theories of linguistics and learning, Functional Grammar Analysis is a curriculum for elementary school teachers to be used in the context of language arts, Palincsar explained. It is one tool to help teachers use text and learn to read with students in ways that engage students in thinking about scientific concepts. This is accomplished by focusing detailed attention on the language
the author chose and how these choices build meaning. The curriculum involves interactive reading and discussion of text, first-hand investigations, demonstrations of phenomena, and support for writing about the phenomena.
Palincsar noted the effectiveness of this curriculum with a diverse group of students has been supported through research (Palincsar et al., 2013). She described a study in which 26 teachers from grades 2 through 5 participated with 12 coaches/resource teachers to implement this curriculum in their classrooms in Dearborn, Michigan, home to the largest population of Arab Americans in the United States. Over 90 percent of children in these participating classrooms were bilingual, with a high proportion classified as English language learners, and over 90 percent of the students in the schools in their research qualified for free and reduced-cost lunch. After using Functional Grammar Analysis, which constituted the only science teaching most students received, students’ science content knowledge increased. In addition, analysis of student writing showed an increase, on average, of five idea units from the pre to postwriting assessment, an increase in the range of ideas children included in their explanations, and more use of writing with connectors and author attitude.
With Functional Grammar Analysis, Palincsar explained, teachers address the technical nature of science texts by helping students identify certain patterns in the language. For example, a paragraph that includes a series of sentences with “being” or “having” verbs tends to convey a definition. Similarly, students are guided to look for sentences that include the phrase “is called” to further build on definitions. Teachers can also point out the ways in which even the word “or” can be used to indicate a definition. Using these tools, she said, teachers help students see how meanings of technical words become clearer as the text evolves from beginning to end.
A focus on “doing” processes rather than “being” or “having” is characteristic of explanatory text, Palincsar explained. Teachers encourage students to identify meaningful “chunks” of text, purposefully using the words participants and processes, rather than on nouns and verbs, to emphasize conceptual understanding over parts of speech. In these texts in which the purpose is to describe how something happens, the flow of ideas often follows an identifiable pattern. A concept named at the end of one phrase is used at the beginning of the next, and ideas build upon one another. Connections between phrases also have particular meaning in science texts. They can convey present time, cause, condition, contrast, or other linkages. Examples of these various text patterns are shown in Box 3-1.
EXAMPLES OF SCIENCE TEXT PATTERNS: DEFINITION, EXPLANATION, CONJUNCTIONS, AND ATTITUDES
Definition: Looking for “having” or “being” words
When a material has electrons that are able to move very freely, it conducts electricity. We call it a conductor. Most metals are good conductors.
Explanation: Looking for “doing” verbs
The electric current provides energy that makes things run. The electrons flow through wires that are made of metal (conductors) and covered in plastic (an insulator).
Conjunctions: Looking for words that explain how ideas are connected
The energy of the electrons is converted to heat or light as the electrons make resisters run.
Attitudes: Looking for words that express the author’s perspective
Likelihood—could, might, perhaps
Connectors that convey perspective—in fact, but, although
SOURCE: Schleppegrell and Palinscar (2013).
Last, Schleppegrell indicated that although science texts can seem objective and impersonal, author word choice conveys a perspective on a range of ideas. Authors choose words to convey their ideas about certainty or likelihood or their attitude about a concept. Connecting words, such as “but,” “although,” or “in fact,” can convey author perspective as well. Examining these texts for author perspective is part of the process of identifying claims an author makes and the evidence used to support that claim, which encourages students to be critical readers of text. According to Palincsar (2013, p. 14), “Students who have been supported to learn the scientific practices identified in the NGSS are equipped to bring such a critical stance to text.”
THE IMPORTANCE OF SCIENCE TALK IN THE CLASSROOM
Bringing a critical stance toward ideas based on reasoning and learning to engage in scientific argumentation are key elements of scientific discourse, according to two presenters who focused their remarks specifically on the importance of scientific discourse in the classroom. Sarah Michaels, Clark University, addressed the centrality of discourse as part of the social nature of science. Later in the workshop, Okhee Lee of New York University shared her views on this topic, providing an initial framework for considering the analytic, receptive, and productive language functions that scientific discourse in the classroom require.
Science Talk as Public Reasoning
Michaels argued that literacy is “disciplined reasoning through text and talk” and that these reasoning practices have to be enacted. That is, students learn how to reason—constructing, engaging in, and critiquing arguments based on evidence—primarily through talk, attention, and shared activities with others. These social activities can include writing in addition to talk, but have as their ultimate aim to make student thinking public and available to the other members of the community. Thus, she said, the challenge becomes creating classroom environments that support this type of structured social interaction and public reasoning. In fact, Michaels argued that all scientific practices involve these public reasoning practices. In her view, “well-structured talk—discussion or guided, scaffolded reasoning talk—will have to become the new foundation for all of the practices in the Common Core and NGSS.”
As Michaels noted, very little of this type of discourse is currently happening in classrooms today, and typically, teachers use an Initiation-Response-Evaluation approach to classroom discussions (Cazden and Mehan, 1989). Such discussions involve the teacher asking a question that generally has one right answer, seeking a typically short response from a student, and then evaluating the correctness of that response. She said this type of discourse is prevalent for a number of reasons. First, most teachers experienced this form of interaction themselves as students. Second, the discussion can be fast-paced, enabling the teacher to cover a lot of material in a relatively short amount of time. Teachers also retain control over the discussion. Although this approach is useful for quick evaluations and checking student knowledge, significant changes are needed to move from this approach to one that promotes reasoning, according to Michaels.
To promote a culture shift to discussions centered around reasoning in classrooms, Michaels stated that teachers need particular forms of support beyond the
guidance they have received in the past. Providing teachers with broad “rules of thumb” regarding how to guide classroom discussions, such as to ask higher order questions and avoid those with known answers, fails to provide the level of guidance that proves to be useful. In contrast, Michaels suggested that teachers benefit much more from learning specific “talk moves.” These moment-to-moment strategies are designed to help students learn how to explain their own reasoning to others and build on the thinking of others. Successful strategies to help teachers share three common elements: (1) a framework of shared goals and a set of talk moves and strategies focused on accomplishing those goals; (2) challenging and coherent content to discuss; and (3) collections of video examples of scientific discourse. Regarding this third element, Michaels stated, “Teachers can’t do what they can’t even imagine.”
According to Michaels, centering classrooms on and providing science teachers with support in reasoning-focused classroom talk is a “high-leverage” strategy. The impact of reasoning-focused classrooms on student thinking and learning can be significant because teachers must carefully consider content, learning goals and expectations, the cognitive demands of the task, and the knowledge possessed, perceived, and to be learned by students. Because of their impact and centrality to learning the scientific practices, Michaels argued that they should be the center of science teaching.
Understanding the Nature of Science Talk: Analytic and Language Functions
Okhee Lee examined the CCSS and NGSS to identify the extent to which science discourse is emphasized and how it is described. Overall, she found that while both point to an important role for talk as a scientific practice and as a way to learn content, talk is far less emphasized than is writing. Discourse appeared to lack a clear definition, she said. Beyond the standards, she noted that students have varying levels of exposure to language used in science and teachers generally do not model the language practices of science. Student writing often mirrors the way they speak.
Lee observed that despite these challenges, oral discourse in the classroom can benefit both science and language development. She argued that science learning is based on experience. Experience, in turn, is essential for the development of oral language. The development of oral language supports written language and is critical to the construction of meaning. She added that these linkages between experience, oral and written language, and meaning-making are not one-directional, but rather are linked together in a more complex feedback loop. Teachers
can scaffold the way to use language in scientific oral discourse to support both science learning and writing. These oral and written skills can ultimately prove useful in other subjects, she noted.
Lee stated that engagement in the science classroom requires students to perform particular receptive and productive language tasks. They must both comprehend oral and written language, as well as communicate their ideas through talk and writing. Each of the NGSS science and engineering practices requires particular sets of these receptive and productive language tasks, along with a set of analytic tasks. Examples of the tasks needed for NGSS Practice 7: Engage in Argument from Evidence are found in the English Language Proficiency Development Framework (Council of Chief State School Officers, 2012; Table 6, pp. 29-30). Further, Lee described, students’ receptive and productive oral and written language tasks can be broken down into various modalities, like whole classroom or small group, multiple ways of speaking or registers, and examples of those registers (Council of Chief State School Officers, 2012; Table 9, p. 35).
Finally, Lee explained that in a classroom centered on scientific investigations, language should be precise, explicit, and complex. Just as with text, science talk involves using particular words with particular meanings beyond those used in everyday speech. Science talk involves detailed reporting and/or explaining one’s thinking about ideas and actions in clear terms. In addition, being able to describe relationships and connections using oral and written language demands a level of complexity in terminology as well as in ways of putting ideas together. As a way of examining the extent to which classroom talk in science reflects these language qualities, Lee presented a series of questions that could help determine whether science discourse goals were being met, as shown in Figure 3-2. Overall, she emphasized that science classrooms are important language learning environments and that oral discourse is a key element of this language environment. This oral discourse is important to the sense-making process in science and requires teacher support for students but also professional support for teachers to achieve success for all students in science.
FIGURE 3-2 Questions to help determine whether science discourse goals are being met.
NOTE: Brianna Avenia-Tapper came up with the conceptualization of the ideas expressed in the figure.
SOURCE: Lee and Llosa (2011-2015).
Audience members and panelists took part in a discussion about how to use these practices, particularly those involving challenging science texts, with varying reading levels present in many classes. Osborne shared that teachers need a way to know student reading level and then to engage in science reading while bolstering student confidence in their reading competence, and to differentiate instruction accordingly. However, Michaels and O’Connor cautioned against diluting the content and complexity that students encounter. Helen Quinn suggested that helping students grapple with complex sentences and equipping them with tools are both parts of helping students become better readers. Affirming this approach, O’Connor stated that much of her work occurs in schools where many students read below grade level. She urged workshop participants not to be afraid to help their students grapple with difficult language, and to use discourse to ask them what they think.