Is English language crucial for science education?

Language proficiency still plays a role in learners' ability to answer scientific questions. This posits a challenge for children for whom English is not the first language.

Engish learners
English Language Learners (ELLs) are at a disadvantage Pixabay

A learner who has to answer scientific questions needs to improve his scientific proficiency highly, It is particularly a challenge for children who are from homes where English is not the first language. Due to the changes in the nature of assessment, including the Next Generation Science Standards, a number of language demands are being made on those students.

A recent study by Lancaster and Sheffield Universities said offering English-language learners (ELLs) equal assessment chance is especially tough in educational policy and practice.

'Mitigating the effect of language in the assessment of science: A study of English-language learners in primary classrooms in the United Kingdom' by from Lancaster University and Dr Timothy Heaton, of the University of Sheffield, is just published in the journal, Science Education.

Teachers and assessors have to adapt to new practices and educational professionals need to play an important role in encouraging discipline-specific learning. Hence, they need to adapt "relevant, formative and equal teaching and assessment methods". This also translates to acknowledging multiple educational, linguistic and socio-cultural aspects brought by ELLs into the classroom.

Checking the performance of 485 students, constituting English native speakers (ENSs) and ELLs across five UK schools in the seven to eleven year age groups, Dr Afitska and Dr Heaton assessed them on standardised science tasks. The ELLs seemed to perform now as well as their English native-speaking peers. But the gap between them also depended on assessment traits.

ELLs seemed to be at a disadvantage when they had to exhibit active language production and/or when they had to show some particular scientific vocabulary. "These conclusions lead us to suggest that ELLs may often possess the intended underlying scientific understanding but lack the required vocabulary and language skills to demonstrate it appropriately during assessment," said Dr Afitska.

Poor performance in the tests could become very significant for learners. "Potentially influencing future opportunities and the direction of study at post-secondary education levels. Indeed, poor performance can affect a student's perception of themselves as a good Science, English or Mathematics learner. It may also lead to a student being streamed into a lower ability group or class or moved to a more vocational line of study that does not provide such an academically challenging curriculum," said the report.