Issues in teaching the language of science to L2 speakers

Issues in teaching the language of science to L2 speakers


I was intrigued by this particular topic because I have several friends from diverse cultural backgrounds who are challenged by the education system. We frequently assist each other academically and even though I appreciate the fact that these challenges are occasioned by their individual cultures and countries of origin, I have never thought of investigating the main reasons behind them. I obviously have a hunch of what some of the problems could be, but have no idea how they can be effectively solved. This topic will give me an opportunity to conduct research on the issues affecting their learning experiences and how they can be addressed to curb the disparity in performance between native English speaker and non-native English speakers. Moreover, I might gain invaluable knowledge that I can use in future to formulate viable strategies and policies that will help in alleviating this challenge.

Issues in teaching the language of science to L2 speakers.

The main aim of this report is to investigate the issues affecting teaching the language of Science to L2 speakers. To this end, it will explore the various challenges by faced non-native English speakers in their pursuit of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses. For simplicity, the report will mainly focus on English as the second language. Additionally, it will highlight some of the main reasons why there is a disparity between the performance of students who use English as a Second Language (ESL students) and native English speakers. Finally, recommendations will be provided on some of the strategies that can be adopted by teachers to improve the performance of ESL students.

Due to globalization, classrooms are increasingly becoming culturally and linguistically diverse, which underscores the need to formulate effective strategies to ensure that the education system caters for ESL students (Buck, 2000). To achieve this, some learning institutions have resorted to hiring trained full time ESL teachers to bridge the language barrier between students and teachers. However, not all school boards have the resources or capacity to warrant the services of such teachers. These schools are prompted to adopt other strategies to improve the proficiency of the students in English. Due to persistent academic challenges faced by ESL students, it has been observed that there is a higher dropout rate among non-native English speaking students compared to native English speaking students (Pignot-Shahov, 2012). Moreover, despite the burgeoning number of non-native students in most developing countries, the percentage of non-native students being enrolled in STEM courses in institutions of higher learning continues to remain relatively low.

In a bid to investigate the vocabulary skills of native and non-native English Speakers in international schools, Childs & O’farrell (2003) carried out a study at nine international schools in Asia and Europe to investigate the command of non-technical vocabulary among native and non-native English speakers. The results of this study suggested that there was a deficit in the command of non-technical vocabulary among non-native English speakers compared to their native counterparts. From these results, it was concluded that language development among ESL students was limited in several ways and that this had the capacity to negatively influence their command of non-technical vocabulary in science.

Language plays a critical role in academic achievement. As such, science instructors are increasingly becoming aware of the significance of language in the classroom. The language of science is relatively difficult and more often than not obscure even for first language students. Consequently, teachers are in most cases required to carefully and precisely explain scientific concepts in order to facilitate a shared meaning between various participants in classroom discourse. In order to communicate effectively in science, students are prompted to use context reduced and cognitively demanding language, which is considered to be partially difficult especially for second language learners. Nonetheless, science is characterized by several aspects, which make it an ideal medium for learning foreign languages, especially by contributing to the reduction in the affective barrier for L2 students (Childs & O’farrell, 2003). This is achieved by reducing linear anxiety, boosting self-confidence and motivating students to acquire foreign languages because they entail a high level of participation and interaction (Hobson, 2001).

According to Childs & O’farrell (2003) some of the prerequisites for affective language instruction are present in the nature of science as a subject. As such, the challenge posed to science teachers is to utilize the potential inherent in science lessons to provide a rich context in which the language of science can be taught. This is however easier said than done because science teachers are required to give prominence to language by adopting several strategies and pedagogical devices.

Non-technical vocabulary poses a unique challenge for the instruction of science in mixed classes of native and non-native speakers (Gan, 2012). Some words bear a specific and at times totally different meaning or connotation in a scientific context compared to their meaning in the ordinary context. For instance, words like ‘control’ when used in the context of an experiment and ‘dominant’ when used in ecology or genetics carry a slightly different meaning compared to their everyday usage. While technical terms involving such vocabulary might be unfamiliar to both language groups, native speakers will in most cases have an upper hand over their non-native counterparts because they have a better command of the range of meanings of such terms and are able to use them in different contexts. This is evidenced in the results of the study carried out by Childs & O’farrell (2003), which revealed that there are significant deficiencies in scientific literacy, especially in terms of the mastery of non-technical vocabulary among ESL students. Even though native speakers were also found to have similar challenges, the problem was more pronounced among non-native speakers.

In order to come up with effective solutions to the disparity in performance between native English speakers and non-native English speakers, policy makers must endeavor to get to the root cause of this disparity (Ferreira, 2011). One of the main reasons that contributes to poor performance among ESL students, is the fact that they are ushered into the education system through transitional bilingual education programs that utilize their native languages to facilitate English learning (Llinares, Leiva, Cartaya, & Louis, 2008). However, while they are introduced to the fundamentals of education in both languages, they are expected to ultimately abandon their native languages and adopt English as the main language of communication as they graduate to higher levels. Transitional bilingual education programs not only aim at extending the proficiency of the students in English but also in their native tongue. While this might go a long way in promoting the adoption of local cultures, it could prove to be detrimental to their academic performance in the long run.

Additionally, because a good number of ESL students originate from developing countries characterized by a vast majority of remote rural areas, they are more often than not introduced to the basics of the English language under unfavorable learning conditions by Teachers with relatively low proficiency in English. Several authors have pointed out that improving the outcomes of early childhood education has a significant influence on subsequent trajectories of education and lifelong learning (Silburn, Nutton, McKenzie, & Landrigan, 2011). The acquisition of the English language in early childhood and primary learning institutions is therefore not only predictive of subsequent outcomes of English oracy but also school attendance and participation. For this reason, ESL students a normally disenfranchised right “from the word go” and consequently find it difficult to catch up and keep up with native English speakers.

Another factor that influences the performance of non-native students in science subjects and courses is learning principles. The AAAS (1990) stipulates four principles of learning scientific literacy that have a direct bearing on the performance of ESL students. These include the fact that prior knowledge influences learning, learning moves from the concrete to the abstract, learning requires practice in new situations, and effective learning requires feedback. ESL students are disadvantaged by preexisting knowledge and world views, which might not be consistent with the concepts taught in their new schools. This information may either influence their performance positively or negatively. Nevertheless, in most cases it influences their performance negatively due to the assessment strategies adopted in English schools. Moreover, because learning moves from the concrete to the abstract, science investigations can provide a firm foundation for ESL students upon which abstract concepts can be nurtured. This is achieved through observing and measuring concrete objects to hypothesizing, classifying and interpreting results. Finally, due to cultural differences such as high power distance, non-native English speakers find it difficult to participate in new situations and solicit for feedback from instructors, which impedes their learning.

In light of the issues discussed in this report science teachers should consider adjusting their teaching practices to accommodate ESL students. Teachers should particularly be inclined towards using authentic materials, visual representations and hands on approaches regardless of whether they are interacting with the two groups or just native speakers (Buck, 2000). This is because, while challenges associated with vocabulary can mainly be attributed to ESL students, native speakers have also been found to exhibit similar challenges but to a less dramatic extent.

Apart from making accommodations to their teaching styles, teachers should consider the learning strategies adopted by ESL students. They should be cognizant of the fact that the students originate from diverse cultural backgrounds hence they might not adapt to their teaching strategies. Chinese students are for instance highly influenced by power distance in their relationship with teaching staff, which discourages them from asking questions in class (Abubaker, 2008). These questions are however at the heart of today’s inquiry lessons and as such, non-native students will be prompted to practice how to ask questions in class. Teachers should also interact closely with students in order to determine the learning strategies that they possess and lack. This could provide valuable insights that could help them in formulating more effective teaching strategies.

Other than teaching and learning strategies, assessment strategies should also be redesigned to accommodate ESL students (Buck, 2000). Teachers should make deliberate attempts to make assessments more relevant to non-native students. In this regard, they should explore the cultural backgrounds of ESL students and make rigorous consultations with their parents and other key stakeholders in order to establish relevant goals and objectives for such students and formulate appropriate assessment strategies. To this end, gathering information on the assessment strategies that have been used in their previous school might be a good starting point.

To conclude, there is a need to formulate effective strategies to promote equality in the education system because it is apparently biased against ESL speakers, owing to their diverse cultural backgrounds and inadequate proficiency in the English language. An empirical study has shown that there is a deficit in the command of non-technical vocabulary among non-native English speakers compared to their native counterparts, which has had a negative impact on their academic performance in science courses. Notwithstanding, science courses are characterized by several aspects, which make them an ideal medium for learning foreign languages, especially by contributing to the reduction in the affective barrier for L2 students. As such, if the overall performance of science subjects is improved, there is a very high likelihood that the performance of student in other subjects will also improve substantially. However, in order to come up with effective strategies to improve ESL students’ performance, policy makers have to get to the root cause of the disparity in English proficiency. It has been found that most non-native English speakers, are introduced to English language on weak foundations which have long-term negative impact on their proficiency in English, which in turn affects their performance. Teachers should therefore be cognizant of the academic and cultural backgrounds of their students and make deliberate attempts to adopt inclusive teaching and assessment strategies while at the same time promoting positive learning strategies among students.


Abubaker, A. (2008). The influence of Chinese core cultural values on the communication behaviour of overseas Chinese students learning English. ARECLS, 105-135.

Buck, G. A. (2000). Teaching Science to English-as-Second-Language Learners: Teaching, learning, and assessment strategies for elementary ESL students. Retrieved from Faculty Publications: Department of Teaching, Learning and Teacher Education.: htt://

Childs, P. E., & O’farrell, F. J. (2003). Learning Science through English: An Investigation of the Vocabulary Skills of Native and Non-Native English Speakers in International Schools. Chemistry Education: Research and Practice, 4(3), 233-247.

Ferreira, J. G. (2011). Teaching Life Sciences to English second language learners: What do teachers do? South A frican Journal of Education, 102 – 133.

Gan, Z. (2012). Understanding L2 Speaking Problems: Implications for ESL Curriculum Development in a Teacher Training Institution in Hong Kong. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 43-59.

Hobson, A. (2001). Teaching Relevant Science for Scientific Literacy: Adding Cultural Context to the Sciences. Journal of College Science Teaching, 238-43.

Llinares, G., Leiva, B., Cartaya, N., & Louis, R. S. (2008). Acquisition of L2 vocabulary for effective reading: Testing teachers’ classroom practice. The Reading Matrix, 55 – 69.

Pignot-Shahov, V. (2012). Measuring L2 Receptive and Productive ing L2 Receptive and Productive. Language Studies Working Papers, 37 – 45.

Silburn, S., Nutton, G., McKenzie, J., & Landrigan, M. (2011). Early years English language acquisition and instructional approaches for Aboriginal students with home languages other than Englis: A systematic review of the Australian and international literature. Darwin, NT: The Centre for Child Development and Education, Menzies School of Health Research.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science . (1990). Science of all Americans. Author: Washington, DC.

language of Science

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