Let Students See What We Mean

Language could be a barrier. I remember in college the first time I heard the word "stochastic". Wow! I had no idea then what that word meant. And that word had a significant weight on what the instructor was trying to tell me. I wished the instructor had just used the more familiar synonym, "random". I probably would have understood more. It is true that science requires precise and accurate language, but in a lot of cases, it is possible to use more familiar words instead of low-frequency but non-technical words. Chemistry requires the use of the word "covalent", but it does not require the use of the word "commensurate" in place of the word "equal". In a classroom where students' needs ought to be considered, we must try our best to help children succeed, and not add unnecessary hurdles to learning. In science, this is particularly important especially when the students are not native speakers of the medium of instruction.

Recent research has shown that with standardized tests in science, a choice of words in the question can contribute to lower test scores especially for English-language learners. Take, for instance, the following question:

Above copied from
Noble, T., Sireci, S. G., Wells, C. S., Kachchaf, R. R., Rosebery, A. S., & Wang, Y. C. (2020). Targeted Linguistic Simplification of Science Test Items for English Learners. American Educational Research Journalhttps://doi.org/10.3102/0002831220905562

The above question is from the Massachusetts Grade 5 Science Test. The original test question shown above is purely text and it does require students to know not just the meaning of "flexible" (what the question is testing) but also to be familiar with a variety of English words like ceramic. The researchers in their study simplified this question by adding images that correspond to the choices as shown in the above figure, and the results showed that the modification led to better scores among English-language learners. The study included both high- and low-performing native English speakers and with this set of students, there were no effects. The change, however, for English language learners is significant as shown in the following figure.

Above copied from
Noble, T., Sireci, S. G., Wells, C. S., Kachchaf, R. R., Rosebery, A. S., & Wang, Y. C. (2020). Targeted Linguistic Simplification of Science Test Items for English Learners. American Educational Research Journalhttps://doi.org/10.3102/0002831220905562

More students are answering this question correctly with the images added. What is plotted above is the probability of getting this item right versus the total score of the student in the 25-item test.

These results show that simplification by adding visual images works in an exam. Therefore, one can easily imagine that this likewise can make a significant difference in the way we teach and how students learn.


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