TSFL: Teaching Science as a Foreign Language

The Language of Science

One my favourite factoids (which I cannot recall the source of and therefore substantiate) is that pupils learning GCSE science encounter more new words than when they study a foreign language. Usually directed at MFL teachers. Usually they don’t believe me!


It is quintessentially captured in the following quote from Via, August’s sister in the book Wonder, by R J Palacio, when she is reflecting on the chances of her passing on a defective gene to her own potential offspring.

They use terms like “germline mosaicism,” “chromosome rearrangement,” or “delayed mutation” to explain why their science is not an exact science. I actually like how doctors talk. I like the sound of science. I like how words you don’t understand explain things you can’t understand.

When extending this passage further within this fantastic book there are the following terms: defective, gene, trace, probability, inherit, genetic, inherited, geneticists, Punnett, recessive, dominant as well as those mentioned in the quote. For students, who haven’t had several lessons on genetics, these scientific words don’t yet exist so encountering them within Wonder might feel quite daunting.

(It would seem, based on the red, squiggly lines I’m currently looking at, that even WordPress isn’t okay with the terms germline, mosaicism or Punnett!)

Problem Time

It is generally accepted that we need to understand 95% of the words in a piece of text to fully comprehend it, though a paper from Nation, I.S. (2006) actually suggests that for unassisted comprehension 98% coverage is required. With subjects such as the sciences, maths and MFL being littered with unfamiliar terms, attaining this coverage is going to be quite a challenge!

Perusing the glossary of a GCSE biology textbook in front of me there are approximately 300 terms and definitions which often contain words which may well be unfamiliar. Asking pupils to use it to look up terms might not be so straight forward…

potometer Apparatus used to measure the rate of water uptake in a plant

“Sir, what’s appa.. what’s appar… what does that word mean?”

“Apparatus is another word for equipment”

“Why didn’t they just write that?”

Given that apparatus isn’t the most challenging word found in science, I feel like we could ameliorate R J Palacio’s quote from earlier: “I like how words you don’t understand, and can’t pronounce, explain things you can’t understand”.

I have also seen the term ‘instruments’ used in place of equipment and apparatus, which is terrifying for me as I expect that lexical choice could kibosh the chances of a pupil understanding and then attempting to answer the question.


Using the word ‘instruments’ could well lead to pupils thinking about violins, trumpets and guitars instead of voltmeters, thermometers and gas syringes!

Introducing New Terms

When introducing new concepts, it’s a pretty solid teacher move to remind pupils of their prior knowledge and explain how it links to the knowledge to be acquired.

Do we automatically do the same with new language?

If not, we should, due to the role language plays in attainment, as a 2017 study published by the EEF and the Royal Society showed.

The report finds that it is not lack of motivation to learn science that is contributing to the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their better-off classmates. Analysis of attainment data finds that the biggest predictors of pupils’ attainment in science are their levels of literacy and their scientific reasoning ability.

Pupils’ ability to understand the texts they are reading have such a direct impact on their learning that we must make teaching technical language an explicit part of teaching science.

For example, when teaching Y9 about DNA structure recently we went through the process (roughly) detailed below:

  1. Labelled simple cells to pop the familiar word “nucleus” back into their brains.
  2. Chorally repeated the words “deoxyribonucleic acid” and “nucleotide” several times, with the spelling and definition for each visible, as I firmly believe that if a pupil cannot say a word confidently they are highly unlikely to remember it.
  3. Linked the less familiar words deoxyribonucleic acid and nucleotide to the more familiar word nucleus making the “nucle” commonality extremely explicit.
  4. Did some explaining of DNA structure which included these terms with appositive clauses to reiterate the meanings. (more on these later)
  5. Provide questions where the answers are the unfamiliar terms which will reinforce their meaning through multiple choice quizzing.
  6. Provide questions which require pupils to write the unfamiliar words and when assessing these draw explicit attention to the importance of spelling.

Within the same lesson we also have to deal with terms like monomer, polymer, phosphate, complementary base pairs, chromosome, gene, protein, code… it’s simply staggering! Again, wherever possible, link these terms back to familiar, concrete examples.

What would Alex Quigley do? (maybe)

Another useful approach, which tethers new terminology to pupils’ prior learning, is exploring the etymology and morphology of words; a technique thrust into popularity in part, at least, to Alex Quigley‘s Closing the Vocabulary Gap. (https://www.etymonline.com/ is great for this)

In science and maths, where many terms come from Latin or Greek this can be a powerful approach.

morpholgy example

With something like the above image shown on the board ask pupils to think of words they know which contain some of the terms (exo, endo or therm) and what these words mean.

Standard responses are things like, “a thermometer, Sir, which measures temperature, Sir” or “exotic means foreign, Miss, from outside” or maybe even (if only) “like in endocrine system, Sir, which means secreting from within – I remember it like it was yesterday from your exhilarating lessons…”

Okay, maybe the last couple are unlikely but they are words that classes should know by the point you are teaching chemical energy changes. They are therefore examples which you can share with your class to help root the words within their long term memories as you are activating existing schema to attach them to.

Avoid Cognitive Overload

Approaching new and complex language in the order of speaking, then reading and then writing will place less strain on pupils’ working memory. As David Geary (2008) would put it, speaking is biologically primary knowledge and therefore less challenging than reading or writing. Take advantage of this and encourage student talk in advance of the more challenging, biologically secondary knowledge based tasks of reading and writing.


Try putting dinosaur names on the board for pupils to read out: e.g ornithomimus, parasorolophus, deinosuchus. Unless you teach pupils who are passionate about prehistoric beasts, with pertinent prior knowledge, they are unlikely to pronounce them accurately.

Much more likely is cognitive overload as they struggle to seek out familiar graphemes to convert to phonemes which may be hard to find in words of Latin or Greek root. Hearing how the words sound initially and then connecting their understanding of language construction to fit, will leave them in a better position to be able to read and recognise the terms before finally recalling and writing the terms down.

Building Wider Vocabulary

Trapped (happily) in my long term memory is this tweet from Dylan Wiliam in June 2019.


The study, above, suggests that exposing pupils to complex vocabulary is key to them acquiring it. Now, I enjoy elaborate lexical selections embedded within my typical discourse but have sometimes worried that meaning is lost once a mini-mountain of tier two terms have built up. The findings within the study help allay my misgivings.

An approach I use to safeguard against this (as sentences with numerous tier two and three words will often escape my lips) is by dropping appositive clauses into my explanations. An appositive clause is one which provides clarity as to meaning without breaking the flow of the instruction.

So, instead of saying:

“Once the glucose has been produced by photosynthesis there are a plethora of ways in which it can be utilised”

I might say:

“Once the glucose has been produced by photosynthesis there are a plethora of, many, ways in which it can be utilised, used

Ensuring a palpable pause on the comma then delivering the appositive a semitone lower (famously modelled by Tom Millichamp at CogSciSci 2019) is great fun. Try it! (It’s because, fundamentally, you sound cooler.)

Reinforcing an Ambitious Vocabulary

Providing a way for pupils to demonstrate their knowledge in science, via writing and using an ambitious vocabulary, is challenging and should probably be carried out in a supportive manner.

photosynthesis writing opp

By providing a word list which contains tier two vocabulary as well as some tier three prompts pupils can be directed to retrieve the required knowledge and also be reminded to use up-scaled vocabulary.

Drip feeding these types of approaches into lessons, across all subjects, will have a marked effect on the oracy and literacy of learners. Those who lead on whole school literacy know this and are tasked with getting all departments (yes, even maths) on board and steering pupils towards a richer vocabulary and a brighter future!

Thanks for reading this far. Much obliged, grateful.

You can follow me on twitter if you like @MrTSci409 and find other blogs here.


5 thoughts on “TSFL: Teaching Science as a Foreign Language

  1. Very interesting and great advice. I frequently draw attention to the root words, prefixes and suffixes because I have often witnessed students being unable to access exam questions due to a lack of language confidence, if not knowledge. They may know the answer, and they may know the parts of the word, but often give up before having a go. Building the confidence to have a go can work wonders for grade improvement in science. Students often know so much more science than they realise, even if they didn’t learn it in a classroom, and if they can be encouraged to access and apply that knowledge they can improve their performance significantly. I will follow your advice on getting students to say the words themselves, and I will endeavour to use the more unusual vocabulary myself, followed by the ‘translation’ as you suggest, Also, that book is excellent, and the film too 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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