The School Science Curriculum Context of South Africa

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The Role of Language in Learning Science

The human mind is endowed with ability (not shared by any other species) for obstructing from natural experience an essence in an abstract form and articulating it in a manner that permits its transmission and manipulation (Bybee, 2002:234). It is this faculty to manipulate knowledge in a symbolic framework that enables humans to derive deeper meanings from their experiences and to generate new knowledge which natural experiences in their raw form could never reveal (Anstrom, 2001:132).
According to Simala (2001:311) “language makes it possible for us to understand and make sense of the world of Science by providing a cognitive framework of concepts. It is through the use of such a framework consisting of words and meanings that we interpret the concepts and exchange information about them with other people. Our entire knowledge and experience of the Science concepts is mediated by language”.
Language is the most common medium through which learners and educators interact in the Science classroom. Given this, parents, educators and learners need to understand that whether learners are studying literature, history or Science; they need fundamental language skills to understand information and express their ideas on it. It is through language that learners are able to acquire skills that are essential in the workplace and for their livelihood (Setati, 2003:12; Yushau, 2004:183). Communication in Science relies heavily on context reduced, cognitively demanding language, which has been identified as being particularly difficult for second language learners to acquire (Cummins, 2000:200).
The importance of language in learning and teaching Science cannot be under-estimated. It is important for learners in developing their scientific knowledge, and for educators in understanding their learners’ learning processes. But research has shown that the ways in which educators and learners use language in the classroom are complex and the effects, though considerable, are often highly subtle and not self-evident. Therefore it is important to develop what happens with language, why it happens and how it happens, since language is a tool that is used for expressing information and ideas. A variety of linguistic and non-linguistic modes are used for communication: listening and talking; reading and writing; discussing and arguing; narrating and describing; using actions, images and symbols–all of which are ways of signaling meaning and what linguistics term ‘semiotics’ (Lemke, 1998:88).
Bell (2001:140) asserts that “teaching and learning are vastly facilitated through the use of language. Not only is language used by educators to communicate information to learners, language is necessary for the complete formulation of most concepts and principles. In Science classrooms, one of the primary ways for learners to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of scientific ideas is through the use of language to express their conceptions of the ideas”.
McLean (2000:125) supports the above assertion by stating that “many of the learners’ learning problems in Science originate from an inadequate knowledge of the basic vocabulary of the language of learning and teaching (LoLT) since, as Bohlmann (2001:14) asserts, language is the medium by which educators introduce and convey concepts and procedures, through which texts are read and problems are solved.
In an analysis of recent studies on second language learning in Science, Rollnick (2000:100) states that “… it is acknowledged that expecting learners to learn a new and difficult subject through the medium of a second language is unreasonable, giving them a double task of mastering both Science content and language”. This double task entails the acquisition of two conceptually difficult and different skills at once – one being related to language, and the other to Science content. This confirms what Cummins (2000:23) asserts when he suggests that second language learners will acquire language and content most successfully when they are challenged cognitively but provided with contextual and linguistic supports.
The majority of learners (if not all) in the research area learn through a language other than their first language (primary language or mother tongue). In other words, they are experiencing schooling in a second interaction. This results in poor academic performance because research indicates that using the learners’ home language adds to the child’s ability to perform satisfactorily and to communicate in the second language (Brice, 2001:135).
Proficiency in conversational English is not the only prerequisite for English second language learners to master Science. They also need to be familiar with scientific English. According to Setati (2003:15), “learners engage in both conceptual and procedural discourses by using a language”. The difference between conversational language and scientific language is considerable, since according to Rollnick (2000:100), “… the difference between everyday language and Science or scientific terminology also leads to first language speakers learning a new language when learning Science”.
Further, limited proficiency in the language of learning and teaching inhibits or restricts progress and overall achievement. Communication in the classroom is used to negotiate meaning, explain solutions, clarify misunderstanding as well as to verbalize (scientific) ideas and thoughts. All scientific ideas, interpretations reasoning and thoughts are filtered through language in the classroom (Mercer, 2001:40). Hence, Mercer (2001:42) suggests that “educators need to adjust their lessons according to the background knowledge and language skills because many of the textbooks presently in use take this variable for granted while demanding too much of the learners’ reading skills”. The implication here is that educators should look carefully at the text used in the textbook in order to identify vocabulary and concepts that might be difficult for learners.
Culture is also a critical determinant in shaping how learners speak and interpret words. Meanings of words are determined by the uses of words within a linguistic and cultural setting, and these settings are not the same in any two cultures. For instance, learners who are using English as their second language, like the subjects of the present study, need to learn words in English as well as the cultural background that gives words their English meaning (Meyer, 2002:120). To fully function in a particular language, one not only needs to understand the mechanics, such as grammar, but also to apply that language across various contexts, audiences, and purposes (Meyer, 2002:120).
The above serves to explain why it has always been advocated that meaningful learning takes place in an environment that accommodates learners’ home language since that awakens a variety of internal development processes that a child has acquired in his socio-cultural environment (Meyer, 2002:122).
Zevernbergen (2001:145) echoes the same view when she contends that “when learners enter the school context, their “out of school” language practice becomes embodied in their habitus.
As a result, learners whose linguistic background is different from the one used in the classroom are likely to be marginalized by those who are proficient in the required language”. In direct reference to the learning of Science, Zevernbergen (2001:204) asserts that “classroom interactions are imbued with cultural components that facilitate or inhibit access to the scientific content”.
Torbe and Shuard (2002:121) contend that the forms of language, which learners experience in Science lessons, are often insufficiently varied to allow them to develop for themselves rich forms of language in which to express their scientific thinking. They further indicate that learners may consequently have considerable problems in communication and this may have considerable problems in developing thinking skills. In short, they imply that lack of suitable language is a grave handicap to the internal monologue, which forms the basis of thinking for both Science, and in other curriculum areas. The role which Science plays in communicating ideas and the role of the language (LoLT), which is used in communicating Science, are inextricably bound together.
From the arguments alluded to above, it is evident that learners must learn Science as a language as well as a discipline of knowledge (Zevernbergen, 2001:150). Both the language of learning and teaching (LoLT) and scientific proficiency is required for effective learning. Hence, commenting on the fact that second language learners achieve less in Science than their first language counterparts, Anstrom (2001:135) contends: “if second language (L2) learners do not have access to the linguistic skills required for scientific argumentation, they will not be able to engage in the level of discussion essential to scientific enquiry, and will have difficulty in scientific reasoning”.
The implication here is that L2 learners will find it difficult to use certain linguistic structures such as logical connectors and specialised vocabulary because discourse patterns common to Science such as compare/contrast, and problem/solution require a high level of linguistic ability. Thus cognitive development in Science is heavily dependent upon linguistic development. Thus, in the context of the present study, the researcher is of the opinion that
learning Science through English as a language of learning and teaching will inevitably lead to challenges of cognition.
The following section focuses on textual analysis in a Science academic situation.

Textual Analysis in a Science Academic Situation

In our literate society, it is difficult to think of any skilled work which does not require some form of and level of language proficiency and analytical know-how in independent learning and comprehension. For learners studying through a second language, this is critical because all learning that lies ahead of them is largely dependent on whether or not they possess sufficient metacognitive skills to be able to interpret texts with adequate understanding and appreciation (Clarkson, 2002:13; Cuevas, 2001:135; Lim, 2003:53). Improvement in analytical skills is necessary to achieve a number of goals including:
 to enhance understanding of the content information presented in a text
 to improve understanding of the organization of information in a text
 to increase personal involvement in the learning and reading material
 to promote critical thinking and evaluation of reading material
 to enhance registration and recall of text information in memory (Childs and O’ Farrell, 2003:233; Gardner, 2001:10; Miller, 2002; Mortimer, 2003:55).
Although the researcher as a trained language educationist subscribes to the principle of an integrated approach involving the four language skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing in that order, on the grounds that focusing on one skill may sometimes be limiting and that utilizing other skills as back-up to the reading skill (to analyze written material) may enhance facility in the language skill targeted, he (the researcher) nevertheless takes the point made by Stahl and King (2000:15) that the single most important skill in most second-language situations is usually reading because “it is the platform from which critical thinking, problem solving, and effective expression are launched”.
There are specific functions to be performed in academic learning and they must be performed involving higher–order thinking and problem–solving skills in particular. Any limitation or inability to access information from texts leads to over-reliance on the educator or notes. That is why the possession of strong analytical reading skills is of more importance in many English second language environments (McColvin, 2000:33; Ruddell, 2001:12; Stannovich, 2000:54).
Miller (2002:12) on the other hand points out that “while language may be the most important cognitive resource for a secondary school learner, reading with understanding is not just a language supportive tool for learning, but is the very process through which secondary school learning takes place”. This is because the ability to interpret text is a prerequisite for setting up any programme to teach and improve Science learning. Hence, Christie (2001:293) contends that in the Science classroom, one needs to have both commonsense knowledge i.e. knowledge that is familiar and readily available; and uncommonsense knowledge i.e. knowledge that is unfamiliar and involves the use of specialist or technical language.
Further, Wilson (2004:1067) highlights the multi–dimensional nature of text analysis. He argues that reading a text should not be limited to exercises in comprehension, vocabulary development and word identification skills, but should also be seen in relation to the many cognitive aspects which are involved in comprehension over and above decoding linguistic items.
Secondary school learners in particular are expected to be competent learners who are able to infer an idea from a selection, identify a fact or opinion, infer a cause or effect, identify relevant information and follow logical connections in a text but more than anything else are able to internalize such information. To be able to do this, they must acquire particular learning strategies which they will use to suit their needs and goals and which they will be able to adapt according to the nature and complexity of the text they are reading and the tasks they are expected to perform (Vacca &Vacca, 1999:46).
For this reason it is important for particularly the educators to keep in mind all the time that the goal of learning in content area instruction must be to show learners how to analyze texts effectively to comprehend and learn from them.

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The Science Classroom as a Site of Multiple Discourses

Learners bring into the Science classroom a great variety of common sense or views derived from individual experiences of the world. They also bring their own linguistic resources and communicate repertoires developed from early childhood in a variety of social settings. These contribute to the social context of the classroom (Lemke, 1990:15) where the learners’ own discourse gradually becomes extended to incorporate scientific discourse. Scientific discourse comes about through a complex process of socialization that involves code-switching, using language for different purpose with different social determinants for what may, and may not, be said developing a sharing of experiences and thereby leading to the development of scientific knowledge and understanding. Most children quickly become adept at code-switching in situations they encounter, although it seems that middle class children are much better prepared to develop a formal use of language than are working class children (Barnes, 199:2; Lemke, 1997:66).

Table of contents :

1.1 Introduction
1.2 Awareness of the Problem
1.3 Conceptual Framework
1.3.1 Orientation
1.3.2 The School Science Curriculum Context of South Africa
1.4 Statement of the Problem
1.5 Research Question
1.6 Hypothesis
1.7 Aim of the Study
1.8 Significance of the Study
1.9 Methodology
1.9.1 Research Approach
1.9.2 Sampling
1.9.3 Data Collection Techniques Qualitative Data Collection Techniques Quantitative Data Collection Techniques Document Analysis
1.10 Data Analysis
1.11 Delimitation of the Study
1.12 Trustworthiness of the Study
1.13 Validity and Reliability
1.14 Explanation of Key Terms
1.14.1 Science Language
1.14.2 Senior Phase Science Learners
1.14.3 English Second Language (ESL) Learners
1.14.4 Text
1.14.5 Prior Knowledge
1.14.6 Underprepared Learners
1.14.7 Multilingualism
1.14.8 Bilingualism
1.15 Outlay of the Study
1.16 Conclusion
2.1 Introduction
2.2 The Role of Language in Learning Science
2.3 Textual Analysis in a Science Academic Situation
2.3 The Science Classroom as a Site of Multiple Discourses
2.4 Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning Domains
2.4.1 Cognitive Domain
2.4.2 Affective Domain
2.5 Theories of Second Language Learning
2.6.1 The Input Hypothesis
2.6.2 The Interaction Hypothesis
2.6.3 The Output Hypothesis
2.6.4 Vygotsky on Language and Thinking
2.7. Factors Affecting Second Language Learning
2.7.1 Orientation
2.7.2 Styles and Strategies
2.7.3 Affect
2.7.4 Motivation
2.7.5 Meaningful Learning
2.8 Theories and Perspectives for teaching Science to Disadvantaged
2.8.1 Introduction
2.8.2 The Behaviourist Theory
2.8.3 The Constructivist Theory
2.9 Gender Differences on Learners’ Science Performance
2.10 Issues around the Second Language as a Language of Learning and Teaching
2.10.1 Orientation
2.10.2 Choice of the Language of Learning
2.11 Research on Language of Learning and Teaching Science: An International Problem
2.12 Research on Language of Learning and Teaching Science: A Continental (African) Problem
2.13 Research on Language of Learning and Teaching Science: A National (South African) Problem
2.13.1 Orientation
2.14 Language in Education Policy of South Africa
2.14.1 Orientation
2.15 English Second Language Intervention Programmes
2.15.1 Orientation
2.15.2 Cognitive Acceleration Intervention Programme Theoretical Background The Role of the Mediator Concrete Preparat The Challenge Group Work Metacognition Bridging
2.15.3 The Australian English Second Language Intervention Programme Intervention Strategies
2.16 Conclusion
3.1 Introduction
3.2 The Effects of History on the Research Area Environment
3.3 Poverty and Unemployment
3.4 Geographical Location
3.5 The Physical Environment of Schools
3.6 English Teaching in the Primary Schools of the Research Area
3.6.1 Orientation
3.7 Science Teaching in Primary Schools of the Research Area
3.7.1 Orientation
3.8 Class Size
3.9 Conclusion
4.1 Introduction and Context
4.2 Research Approaches
4.2.1 Orientation
4.2.2 The Quantitative Approach
4.2.3 The Qualitative Approach
4.3 The Population
4.4 Sampling
4.5. Data Gathering Instruments
4.5.1 Orientation
5.5.2 Observation
4.6 Educator Questionnaire
4.6.1 Aim and Rationale of Questionnaire
4.6.2 Questionnaire Administration and Supervision
4.6.3 Reliability of Data Collected
4.7 Learner Questionnaire
4.7.1 Content of the Learner Questionnaire
4.7.2 Rationale for Questionnaire Design
4.7.3 Procedure
4.7.4 Questionnaire Administration and Supervision
4.7.5 Scoring the Questionnaire
4.8 The Interviews
4.8.1 Types of Interviews
4.8.2 Type of Interview used in this Study
4.8.3 Procedure in Conducting Interviews
4.8.4 Field Notes and Transcriptions
4.9 Validity and Reliability
4.9.1 Validity Internal Validity External Validity
4.9.2 Reliability
4.10 Triangulation
4.11 Ethical Considerations
4.11.1 Informed Consent and Permission
4.11.2 Respect for the Insider’s Perspective
4.11.3 Anonymity and Confidentiality
4.11.4 Objectivity
4.11.5 Post Research Relationships
4.11.6 Plagiarism
4.12 Document Analysis
4.13 Data Analysis
4.12.2 Qualitative Data Analysis
4.13 Quantitative Data Analysis
4.14 Conclusion
5.1 Introduction
5.2 Background of the Research Area
5.3 Background of the Situation in the Schools
5.4 The Findings of the Classroom Observations
5.4.1 The Classroom Environment
5.4.2 Classroom Interactions
5.5 The Outcome of Interviews
5.5.1 The Educators’ Interview
5.5.2 Learners’ Interview
5.6 Educators’ Questionnaire
5.6.1 Interpretation of Table 5.3 and Figure 5.
5.7 Outcomes of Learners’ Questionnaire
5.7.1 Discussion of Table 5.4.
5.7.2 Statistical Tests for Relationships between English Skills used in Science and the Frequency of Use
5.8 Conclusion
6.1 Introduction
6.2 Findings
6.3 Recommendations
6.3.1 Recommendations for Educators
6.3.2 Recommendations for Learners
6.4 A Proposed Science-Based English Programme
6.4.1 Introduction
6.4.2 Theoretical Framework for the Programme
6.4.3 The Purpose of the Model
6.4.4 Outcomes of the Programme
6.4.5 Duration of the Programme
6.4.6 Implementation Strategy
6.4.7 Assessment
6.4.8 Explanation of the recommended structure and design of the Science- Based English Programme (SBEP) The Recommended Learning Domains
6.4.9 The Recommended Content of the Science-Based English Programme (SBEP) Module Introduction The Implementation Strategy Explanation of the Implementation Strategy
6.5 Limitations of the Study
6.6 Recommendations for Further Research
6.7 Conclusion


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