The language of science

Author: Sue Howarth
Published: 25/08/2020

What is ‘the language of science’?

At one level, the language of science can be considered as English, as many international scientific conferences and journals use English as their main language. Before this it was German, and even earlier on it was Latin.

Certainly, a good grasp of English is helpful in reading, writing and understanding science. However, at the level of school science, the ‘language of science’ refers to all those words and phrases used in science education. Many of these may be unfamiliar to students, or, if familiar, may be in different contexts and with different meanings.

Science in secondary schools is often seen as a ‘practical subject’, and language and literacy can be overlooked. However, learning to use the language of science is a major part of science education. When planning your lessons, remember that your science lesson is also a language lesson, particularly as language may be a ‘major barrier to most school students in learning science’ (Wellington and Osborne, 2001).

Why you need to be aware of the language of science

If you are teaching science in a secondary school, it is likely that you will have trained as a scientist and/or that you have science as part of your degree. Even if you have a different background, you are going to be much more familiar with the words and ideas of science than most of your students, so you need to realise the additional challenge for some students.

It is easy to assume that students will relinquish their everyday usage of words and switch to using scientific vocabulary when in class. For example, most students are used to the everyday usage of the term ‘weight’ and its measurement in kilograms, though, scientifically, this is mass. Weight is a different concept, measured in different units. It can take a lot of effort for students to use the correct term, ‘mass’. Language in science is intended to be precise; everyday language is not.

Sadly, some students are put off science by what is sometimes called scientific ‘jargon’. Being clear about potential issues with scientific terminology you are about to use can give you a head start in helping your students to enjoy science; you can also promote literacy through your science lessons.

Download Sue Howarth's guide to the Language of science.

Sue Howarth

Sue Howarth is an ASE Chartered Science teacher, a former Biology teacher of the year and teacher-trainer at the University of Worcester. She is chair of the West Midlands branch of The Royal Society of Biology and a Fellow of The Royal Society of Biology and The Royal Society of Chemistry. She has also written a number of publications, including 'Success with STEM'.