literacy by stealth!

As a Physics teacher I find myself regularly discussing with students why a good grasp of literacy is important.  With students telling me that ‘this isn’t an English lesson’ or my current favourite from my Sixth Form, ‘I am Physicist I cannot be expected to explain things with words, I should only use Maths’.  Instead of letting this frustrate me I always see this as the perfect opportunity to explain why having a good grasp of language is important, especially in a complicated science like Physics.  Having the ability to explain a complex idea by using the right terms not only helps to clarify the idea in ones own mind, but also allows the scientist to explain their theories to others. However, I won’t call it literacy.

In a world where it is considered to be common practice to ‘dumb down’ the language that is used to explain science it is no wonder the students find it hard to explain their ideas.  This also has a knock on effect on the performance in the examination, especially when students are writing answers that they tell you when going through a test ‘but you know what I mean’.

I first became interested in literacy in Science when I was informed of a tool called The Academic Word List.  This was collaborated by Avril Coxhead from the University of Wellington and was initially used to help prepare students for study at university.  The list consists of 570 word families that are selected because they appear across a great range of academic texts.  The words are helpfully ordered into 10 sub-lists, with the first list focussing on the most commonly found words.  Even though the list was created for university study it contains words that are relevant to students within school.  In terms of Science, list one contains words such as variables, assume, theory and estimate.  These are all words that are used regularly in science and are also used in many other subjects.  This is illustrated perfectly with the word ‘variable’.  In my subject we use variable to describe something that is changed in an experiment.  However, when looking up the definition on ‘variable’ can mean many different things.  As a noun it is defined as ‘something that may not always be the same’, or ‘something used in mathematics for an unknown value’, or ‘something used in computer programming languages that store data such as a number of words’.  However, variable can also be used as an adjective with three more definitions from this website.  When using an old fashioned Oxford dictionary there were 12 definitions.  No wonder students struggle to find the right words.


So how do we improve literacy? Firstly I think calling it literacy is the not the way forward.  It has to be a systemic part of teaching practice where the students are taught literacy essentially by stealth.  I am currently working on improving the specialist vocabulary of my year 7, 8 and 9 students by playing a keyword game at the start of most lessons.  It works by having all students using their traffic light cards at the back of their planner. At the start of the lesson students display their green cards so that I can see them.  I then ask one student to say out loud any key scientific word that they can think of.  Once they have said their word the student next to them must then say another scientific word beginning with the last letter of the previous word.  This then travels around the class with the last person standing being the student who is able to not repeat any of the words that have already been said and have not said the words ‘er’ or ‘um’.  Should they repeat or say the banned words then they have to turn over their traffic light cards to show a red card.  To make it more interesting words that start with the same letter as they end change the direction of the game. Initially this can take up to half an hour to get round the class, but the next lesson it can be completed in 10-15 minutes as a starter if the students are given a three second limit.  The great thing about this task is that the students love it and they ask to play the game as they walk into the lesson, not realising that they are being tricked into learning.  

Another tool I use is to always write up the keywords for the lesson and get the students to write them in their books.  This is extremely helpful when they are answering questions as I can suggest that they use the keywords to help improve their answers.  Once this is established I would also recommend the excellent work that the University of Nottingham has done on the Academic Word List.  Using the website the list can be downloaded. There is also an Academic Word list highlighter and gap maker.  This allows you to copy and paste any text, including exam papers, and analyse the language that is used.  This is a fantastic tool and is especially useful for helping students move from a B to an A at GCSE and students to improve on the C/D borderline.

For me having literacy as an embedded part of my practice is paramount to students achieving.  With some research bodies suggesting that modern teenagers now only have a vocabulary of 10000 words, compared to 25000 in the 1950s it is our duty to ensure the language students use allow them to achieve their ambitions.

Ross Spearing @rspear_1

Head of Astronomy and STEM Coordinator


4 thoughts on “literacy by stealth!”

  1. The concept of stealth teaching of communication/literacy skills is spot on! It does require confidence, ability and versatility in the teacher. I am equally concerned about supporting colleagues in their functional literacy skills as in supporting the pupils. Saturating a school in language awareness images/posters could help support everyone in this regard.

  2. I did my first degree in Physics and appreciate the need to be an effective communicator to share the beauty of complex models and theories. One approach might be to think about the role of literacy in developing better communication skills. From an employment perspective this would have a significant impact. Thanks for the article and the resultant thought processes.

    1. Thank you for dropping by Andrew and for commenting. We also agree with what you have said and will feed that back into the development work that is happening. Thank you

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