="http://www.w3.org/2000/svg" viewBox="0 0 512 512">

8 Chapter 8: Unlocking the Language of Science

Key Issues

  1. Science texts, materials, and processes may present many challenges to English language learners.
  2. The implementation of the nine science and engineering practices provides an ideal setting for learning language and content simultaneously.
  3. The specialized language of science is filled with technical terms and features needed to describe the natural and physical world.
  4. Unlike language arts and history, science texts have few stories or narratives. The text structure is dense and hierarchical (topic, subtopics, details).
  5. A key component in learning to “talk science” is to analyze Greek and Latin roots as well as the prefixes and suffixes that permeate scientific language.

As you read the scenario below, think about how you would proceed if you were the teacher.

Rita Harrington was accustomed to working with English learners in her sixth-grade geology classroom. After all, she had been teaching for 12 years in a large, multilingual suburban school district. This school year, however, marked her first time teaching a newcomer student from Afghanistan. She admitted to herself that she was a bit nervous at the thought of the crucial role she would play in the development and expansion of Yasir’s understanding and capabilities in geology—especially because she didn’t speak a word of Dari Persian!


Before reading Chapter 8, what advice would you give Rita Harrington regarding teaching science to ELLs?

Science Education: A Focus on Language

Learning the language of science is a major part (if not the major part) of science education. Every science lesson is a language lesson (Wellington & Osborne, 2001, p. 2).

As these authors note, language and science content are inextricably entwined, and this is a challenge for ELLs. There are many other potential challenges for ELLS in the science classroom. These may include:

  • Students may be familiar with lectures and rote memorization of concepts but unfamiliar with hands-on, experiential approaches.
  • Students may not be familiar with science labs or equipment.
  • Content in class is often covered very fast.
  • Directions are usually multistep and complex.
  • Making guesses and drawing conclusions may not be part of students’ prior science experiences.
  • The language of science (vocabulary, language functions, sentence and discourse structures) is specific and vast.
  • Sentence structure in science texts is complex, and the use of the passive voice is pervasive.
  • Many concepts are discussed on each page of science textbooks.
  • Working with a partner or in groups may be a novel way to learn.
  • Assessments do not always match classroom or lab activities.
  • Students familiar only with the metric system will not know ounces, pounds, tons, pints, quarts, gallons, inches, feet, yards, miles, and the Fahrenheit scale.
  • Some ELLs may have strongly held religious beliefs that may be a source of conflict with the science content.

The science classroom is an ideal setting for ELLs to learn both language and content, as students engage in scientific and engineering practices (e.g., asking questions, creating models, analyzing data). Unlike traditional science teaching, which often consisted of long lectures, rigid, step-by-step experiments, and a focus on rote learning of selected science concepts, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS https://www.nextgenscience.org), based on the National Research Council (NRC, 2012) document, A framework for K-12 science education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas, provides English learners with more equitable science and language learning opportunities.

The new vision for science teaching and learning established in the Framework for K-12 Science Education (NRC, 2012) and set forth by the NGSS identify science, engineering practices, and content that all students at the K-12 level should master to be prepared for college and careers.  The NGSS describe science learning as three-dimensional, involving: (1) science and engineering practices, (2) crosscutting concepts, and (3) core ideas in each science discipline. The central content of the Framework is a detailed explanation of what is intended in each dimension, how the three dimensions should be integrated in curriculum and instruction, and how these dimensions progress in sophistication across K-12. Important to highlight is the language-dependent nature of the eight science and engineering practices, listed below:

  1. Asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering);
  2. Developing and using models;
  3. Planning and carrying out investigations;
  4. Analyzing and interpreting data;
  5. Using mathematics and computational thinking;
  6. Constructing explanations (for science) and developing designs (for engineering);
  7. Engaging in argument from evidence; and
  8. Obtaining, evaluating and communicating information.

Clearly, most of these practices are language intensive and demand a focus on academic language. All students, including ELLs, can be successful in the science classroom when educators are aware of the language demands posed by the NGSS and make deliberate efforts to address those language demands and afford learning opportunities as students engage in science and engineering practices.


NGSS For All Students: Read Appendix D of the NGSS (https://www.nextgenscience.org/appendix-d-case-studies), where readers can find seven case studies that illustrate research-based classrooms strategies that educators can use to make the standards accessible to all students, including students with disabilities, gifted and talented students, girls, and English language learners among others.

How do the NGSS Define and Shape Academic Language Use?

Engagement in any of the eight practices involves both scientific sense-making and language use (Lee, Quinn, & Valdés, 2013), especially practices # 1, 4, 6, 7 and 8. For example, let’s examine the first practice, asking questions. The NGSS stress that asking questions is critical to developing expertise in science. A major goal of the NGSS is for students to learn how to generate questions “about the texts they read, the features of the phenomena they observe, and the conclusions they draw from their models or scientific investigations” (NRC Framework, 2012, p. 56). However, earlier research indicates that teacher talk dominates classroom talk and teacher questions, particularly those that ask for recall of factual information, are the norm in most classrooms (Cazden, 2001). Thus, many students are not the ones asking the questions but, most often, answering recall and low-level questions (Ernst-Slavit & Pratt, 2017). Teachers implementing this set of science and engineering practices need an understanding of the practices themselves and of the specialized language needed for students to engage in those practices.

The Specialized Language of Science

Science is, in itself, a language and each different science (biology, physics, chemistry) is a separate language. Science involves the acquisition of concepts and processes, specific vocabulary, phrases, and terminology. The ability to manipulate this language and its processes will provide the necessary instruments for the mastery of the science curriculum (Carrasquillo & Rodríguez, 2005, p. 438).

“Talking science” (Lemke, 1990) is essential to the process of doing science. Students cannot develop and use models, analyze and interpret data, or construct explanations without using appropriate terminology and language structures that characterize the specialized language of science. This science register is filled with technical terms and features needed to describe the natural and physical universe. It uses academic language features such as describing natural phenomena, formulating hypotheses, proposing alternate solutions, inferring processes, gathering and interpreting data, generalizing, and reporting findings. According to Zwiers (2008), the language used in science tends to:

  • Describe relationships of taxonomy, comparison, cause and effect, hypothesis, and interpretation. Unlike language arts and history, science texts have few stories or narratives. The text structure is dense and hierarchical (topic, subtopics, details).
  • Describe procedures explicitly via the use of language functions, such as observe, measure, calculate, predict, graph, examine, align, and connect. Language functions are used primarily in lab directions and lab reports.
  • Connect abstract ideas illustrated by various media. Photos, diagrams, graphs, charts, math and chemistry symbols, lab experiences, and text all overlap to communicate concepts.
  • Use generalized verbs in the present tense to describe phenomena, how something occurs, and why. These generalized verbs include words like produce, engender, power, energize, propel.
  • Appear to be highly objective. First-person perspective and emotion are removed in order to attempt to imbue statements with more credibility (i.e., “just the facts, not your opinion”).
  • Use many new and big words with new meanings, many of which are nominalizations[1]. Examples of such words are condensation, refraction, induction, resonance, reaction, radiation, fusion, erosion, and most other –ation words (Zwiers, 2008, pp. 85–86).

For ELLs to achieve academic success in the science classroom, they need to learn to talk science. Conversely, participation in meaningful science and engineering practices enhances the process of learning scientific language.

The relationship between science learning and language learning is reciprocal and synergistic. Through the contextualized use of language in science inquiry, students develop and practice complex language forms and functions. Through the use of language functions such as description, explanation, and discussion in inquiry science, students enhance their conceptual understanding. This synergistic perspective is a relatively new view of curricular integration. (Stoddart, Pinal, Latzke, & Canaday, 2002, p. 667)

While the use of diverse language functions (i.e., what we ask students to do with language) might be beneficial for conceptual knowledge, it may generate difficulties because each language function demands a different way of using language. Language functions used in science include classify, compare, conclude, describe, detect, explain, hypothesize, investigate, infer, measure, observe, and record, among many others.

As discussed in Chapter 1, the kind of academic language needed to navigate and succeed in the science classroom includes multiple competencies, including a wide range of specific vocabulary items, grammatical constructions at the sentence level, language functions, and discourse features. Each competency is discussed below.

Word/Phrase Level

Current studies point to a strong relationship between extensive student vocabulary and academic achievement. During science instruction, ELLs must rely on a vocabulary in a language they are learning to both understand the topic of discussion and produce written explanations about the material read or about the experiment performed. Because a basic core of approximately 2,000 high-frequency words accounts for most words in academic writing (Scarcella, 2003), effective science teachers can provide explicit and deliberate vocabulary instruction. Academic vocabulary in science, as in other content areas, can be grouped into three categories: general (terms used across content areas), specialized (terms associated with science), and technical (terms associated with a specific topic in science). Figure 8.1 presents examples of types of vocabulary used in different scientific disciplines. There are many well-researched lists of vocabulary terms needed in science, ranging from general to technical, organized by discipline.

Scientific Discipline General Academic Vocabulary Specialized Academic Vocabulary Technical Academic Vocabulary
  • star
  • planet
  • moon
  • rotate
  • nebula
  • galaxy
  • nova
  • pulsar
  • telescope
  • red giants
  • white dwarfs
  • supernovae
  • neutron star
  • Olbers’s paradox
  • nucleus
  • categories
  • class
  • order
  • insect
  • reptile
  • mammal
  • amphibian
  • microscope
  • Animalia
  • Phylum Echinodermata
  • Holothuroidea
  • Dendrochirotida
  • nucleus
  • bond
  • solution
  • atom
  • isotope
  • proton
  • neutron
  • electron
  • hydrometer
  • mass spectrometer
  • periodic table of elements
  • BR = bromine
  • C = carbon
  • FE = iron
  • HG = mercury
  • Boyle’s law
  • mineral
  • fault
  • soil
  • volcano
  • lava
  • magma
  • eruption
  • earthquake
  • seismograph
  • igneous
  • metamorphic
  • sedimentary
  • force
  • lift
  • nucleus
  • pressure
  • power
  • resistance
  • barometer
  • fulcrum
  • particle
  • voltage
  • supernova
  • Bohr model
  • infrasonic
  • magnetic flux

Figure 8.1. Examples of scientific vocabulary used in different disciplines. Images from https://pixabay.com


Find and review an academic vocabulary list.

  • MyVocabulary.com, at https://myvocabulary.com, offers a variety of subject word lists and activities by grade levels.
  • For a K-12 comprehensive list of terms and their definitions see Science Glossary at http://sci2.esa.int/glossary/.
  • For high school science, check The Phrontistery, a site with 633 definitions ranging from “aeronautics” to “zymurgy.”
  • To teach Biology terms, see 179 Biology Words with accompanying activities and assignments at https://www.vocabulary.com/lists/143915.
  • Some word lists also have audio and translations to different languages. Students can hear how words are pronounced and find their translation as well. See, for example, Spellzone at https://www.spellzone.com/word_lists/list-2369.htm.
  • The Wed has many teacher-made or district-organized lists and activities to teach science vocabulary. See, for example, “4th grade science vocabulary words for sound and light” at https://grammar.yourdictionary.com/word-lists/4th-grade-science-vocabulary-words-for-sound-and-light.html or Life science vocabulary terms at https://www.lancasterschools.org/cms/lib/NY19000266/Centricity/Domain/421/Life_Science.pdf

Since science learning involves an increasing number of new vocabulary words, teaching morphemes allows students to have a better understanding of families of words.  A morpheme is a meaningful part of a word that cannot be divided into smaller parts. There are different types of morphemes, such as prefixes, suffixes, and root words. Learning vocabulary by considering how words are related to each other might help students remember their meaning by association.  Figure 8.2 gives examples of science words, their morphemes, and related words.

Science Word Morpheme (meaning) Related Terms
Antibody anti (against) Antibacterial
Biopsy bio (life) Biochemistry
Chromatic chromo (color) Chromatography
Geography graphy (writing) Biography
Heterozygous hetero (different) Hetero
Polysemous poly (many) Polygamy

Figure 8.2 Science morphemes and related words.

Another effective way of helping students learn scientific vocabulary is by highlighting the different meanings of words. Thus, a “beam” is a ray of light in some contexts and a heavy piece of timber in others. This approach is particularly important because ELLs may not know how to select the correct definition in a dictionary. Read the continuation of the chapter-opening scenario below.

Scenario, continued
Looking over the upcoming lesson on the Earth’s interior and plate tectonics theory, Rita easily recognized the need to teach vocabulary such as words with multiple meanings:

  1. the top shelf above a fireplace
  2. a coat or cloak
  3. cerebral cortex (anatomy and physiology)
  4. the part of mollusks and brachiopods that secretes material forming a shell (zoology)
  5. the layer between the Earth’s core and crust (geology)


  1. part of a pie
  2. the outer part of bread
  3. the top, hard layer of the Earth


  1. the center portion of certain types of fruit (biology)
  2. an item related to computer hardware
  3. the layer of the Earth below the mantle

Other terms to review included tectonic plates, inner and outer core, inferences, and layers.

Because Rita was planning on using posters, videos, worksheets, and brown hard-boiled eggs as models for students to explore the Earth’s interior, she thought about the kinds of language functions and grammatical features that Yasir and all her students would need to participate in all the activities. Next, Rita reviewed her state and the WIDA English language development standards (https://wida.wisc.edu/teach/standards/eld) for ideas of activities suitable for Yasir’s beginning level. She also decided to provide some support and guidance to Yasir by pairing him with Thomas, a student with great social skills and good problem-solving talents. With all this planning, Rita felt a bit more relaxed. She was off to good start.


Predict which language functions you can reasonably assume that Rita will ask her students to use in the upcoming geology lesson. Then, think back to a science lesson you recently taught, prepared, or observed. What language functions were present in the lesson? Were those language functions explicitly taught to the students? Were specific terms needed to “do” the science explicitly taught?

Sentence Level Features

The language of science, used to describe the physical and natural world, is characterized by a variety of grammatical features at the sentence level. Some of these features may pose challenges to ELLs who may lack familiarity with those usages. A case in point is the use of the passive voice, that is, instances where the subject who performs the action is ambiguous (e.g., “a two-step analysis was performed”). The use of the passive voice may obscure the meaning of a sentence because it does not clearly state who is the subject who did that action. For some ELLs, the challenge may increase if they do not have a passive voice structure in their first language (Zwiers, 2008). Additional grammatical features that characterize the language of science include the following:

  • Grammatical metaphor
  • Syntactic ambiguity
  • Complex noun phrases
  • Cause and effect
  • Time order
  • Compare and contrast
  • Formulas and symbols (e.g., f = ma, e = mc2)


While you might appropriately use these grammatical features, are you aware of their meaning and usage? Check them out!

Grammatical Metaphor: Substitution of one grammatical class or structure by another, for example, replacing “she emerged” with “her emergence.” Emergence deviates from the traditional pattern where processes are verbs, participants are nouns, properties are adjectives, and logical relations are conjunctions.

Syntactic Ambiguity: A type of linguistic ambiguity that results in sentences being interpreted in more than one way; for example: Flying planes can be dangerous. This sentence can mean either that piloting planes is dangerous or that planes that are flying are dangerous.

Complex Noun Phrases: Sentences made by the addition of multiple modifiers, for example, life, life science, life science industry, and life science industry technologies.

Time Order: A word or phrase that helps readers make the step from one sentence to the next or from one paragraph to the next. Some examples are soon, then, now, while, meanwhile, already, first, second, last. 

Discourse Level Features

Science writing is precise and filled with detail. This often makes for long and complex sentences, as the analysis of the following text suggests:
The osmoregulatory organ, which is located at the base of the third dorsal spine on the outer margin of the terminal papillae and functions by expelling excess sodium ions, activates only under hypertonic conditions. (The Writing Center, 2007, para. 12)

Several items make this sentence complex. First, the action of the sentence (activates) is far removed from the subject (the osmoregulatory organ) so that the reader has to wait a long time to get the main idea of the sentence. Second, the verbs functions, activates, and expelling are somewhat redundant.


Read a helpful article on academic language and the challenge of reading for learning about science from the 2010 issue of Science, found at www.sciencemag.org. The article, written by Harvard professor Catherine Snow (2010), analyzes two different excerpts found on the Web that explain the notion of torque (a topic included in many Grade 7 standards). The author analyzes the unique characteristics of each text and what makes one text more academic than the other.

Science Textbooks.

Another aspect to consider is related to science textbooks. Analyses of the characteristics of the written language of secondary texts indicate that these texts are complex and use structures that are not present in social or everyday language, at the word, sentence and discourse levels (see, for example, Fang & Schleppegrell, 2008; Gee, 2008; O’Halloron, Palincsar & Schleppegrell, 2015; Quinn, Lee and Valdés, 2013). Selected key features include:

  • Authoritative language that suppresses human agents behind events, concepts, and discoveries (e.g., instead of reporting that “Peruvian inventor Pedro Paulet was the first person to build a liquid-propellant rocket engine in 1895” a text might just state “The first liquid-propellant rocket engine was built in 1895.”). As the second example illustrates, written science texts attempt to be objective by using the passive voice and by anonymizing a person or agent. Terms such as “researchers” or “scientists” are often used instead of the person’s name, their location, and affiliation.
  • Nominalizations of verbs or adjectives into nouns to economically summarize sentences into one abstract noun phrase. For example, chemists use terms like condensation, evaporation, sublimation, and deposition instead of having to offer elaborate descriptions of these processes.
  • Long and complex noun phrases and clauses that effectively pack complex content within shorter sentences. For example, an expression such as, “far-ranging voice-activated motion control engines” is challenging to understand.
  • Lexical density allows the “packing” texts with more information (see the example above discussing the “osmoregulatory organ”). The ratio of content words (nouns, adjectives, verbs, and adverbs) to function words (pronouns, prepositions, auxiliary verbs, exclamations, conjunctions, and auxiliary verbs) is called lexical density. The more content words, the more lexical density, with many challenging terms that require decoding each word for understanding.

In general terms, scientific literacy involves more than just texts. It involves understanding very diverse genres and visual-graphical representations, as exemplified in the following list:

  • Lab directions
  • Research reports
  • Data analysis
  • Case studies
  • Scientific texts
  • Tables
  • Posters
  • Description of scientific inquiry
  • Online documents
  • Write-up of experiments
  • Charts
  • Mathematical representations


Select a discourse feature from the list about diverse genres and visual-graphical representations. Then look at the list of grammatical features presented earlier. Which grammatical features are used most often in that discourse type? Do these features vary within the same discourse type? If so, when do they vary?

Selected Strategies for Learning and Talking Science

The NGSS set higher expectations in science for all students, and teachers of ELLs will need to use effective strategies for students to learn and engage with science while learning English. Based on recommendations from the NGSS (see Appendix D, https://www.nextgenscience.org/sites/default/files/%284%29%20Case%20Study%20ELL%206-14-13.pdf), there are five areas where teachers can support science and language for English language learners: (1) literacy strategies for all students, (2) language support strategies with ELLs, (3) discourse strategies with ELLs, (4) home language support, and (5) home culture connections. While, these five areas are discussed to some degree throughout this text, in Figure 8.3 we present examples that highlight the importance of practicing and learning the language of scientific inquiry, the ubiquitous text structures of compare-and-contrast and cause-and-effect methods of inquiry, and Greek and Latin roots.

Engaging in scientific and engineering practices provides students with opportunities to develop enriched understandings of the physical, life, earth, and space sciences as well as engineering design. As students investigate phenomena, they develop the ability to ask questions, plan and carry out investigations, analyze and interpret data, construct explanations, and engage in argument from evidence (all key science and engineering practices in the NGSS). One way to assist students in engaging in the practices of science is by having students use language. A helpful strategy is to have sentence starters or stems. Sentence starters give students support in framing their thinking during instruction allowing them to discuss or write their ideas confidently. For this purpose, students and teacher can jointly create a poster with examples of language needed throughout the different phases of scientific inquiry, as depicted in Figure 8.2.

Phases of Scientific Inquiry Sentence Starters for Each Phase
Identify a problem
  • I wonder . . . .
  • I have noticed . . . .
  • I observe . . . .
  • I was confused by . . . .
Generate a guess or hypothesis
  • I think/believe . . . will happen because . . . .
  • If . . . , then . . . .
  • It’s possible that . . . .
  • It will most likely . . . .
Plan an experiment or inquiry
  • Let’s try . . . .
  • What would happen if . . . ?
  • I will gather . . . .
  • We have to be sure to . . . .
Conduct an experiment
  • Do we have all of the . . . ?
  • What should we do next?
  • How did . . . react to . . . ?
  • How will we measure . . . ?
Collect and organize data
  • Did you record/write down the . . . ?
  • How much . . . ?
  • Where do we record our findings?
  • Should we use a table or a graph?
Analyze and interpret data
  • . . . means that . . . .
  • The data from . . . show . . . .
  • This doesn’t make sense when compared to . . . .
  • My evidence is . . . .
Report results
  • The research demonstrates that . . . .
  • The data show . . . .
  • Based on the data, it is likely that . . . .
  • Our research supports . . . .

Figure 8.3 Sentence starters needed during scientific inquiry.

Teaching Students How to Compare and Contrast

Compare and contrast is a process which forces students to evaluate and synthesize how two things are alike (compare) and how they are different (contrast). There are many examples of graphic organizers to assist students in comparing and contrasting. Figure 8.4 is a list of commonly used vocabulary words when comparing and contrasting two items. Figure 8.5 is an example of a Venn diagram used to compare and contrast permanent magnets and electromagnets.

Compare Contrast
at the same time
in comparison
in the same manner
in the same way(s)
on the other hand

Figure 8.4 Vocabulary terms that signal compare-and-contrast structures.


Did you know about the Crosscutting Concepts in the NGSS? In addition to the nine science and engineering practices, the NGSS has identified seven crosscutting concepts that bridge disciplinary boundaries and provide students with an organizational framework for connecting knowledge from various disciplines. The set of crosscutting concepts is similar to those that appear in other standards documents, in which they have been called “unifying concepts” or “common themes” and includes: (1) patterns, (2) cause and effect, (3) scale, proportion, and quantity, (4) systems and system models, (5) energy and matter, (6) structure and function, and (7) stability and change. When these concepts are made explicit for all students, including ELLs, they can help students develop a coherent and scientifically-based view of the world that surrounds them.

Teaching the Language of Cause and Effect Relationships

Cause and effect, the second crosscutting concept identified by the NGSS, indicates that events have causes, sometimes simple, sometimes multifaceted. A main activity of science is investigating and explaining causal relationships. For example, if we water our plants too often, they will die. Too much water is the cause; the death of the plants is the effect. Determining a cause-and-effect relationship is essential for explaining how things happen the way they do.

In science, this text structure is used to show order, inform, speculate, and change behavior. One way of helping students learn the cause-and-effect text structure is by teaching signal words (also called “secret code” or “nerd words” in elementary classrooms) that show cause-and-effect relationships. See the examples in Figure 8.6.

accordingly due to nevertheless that is how
as a result of for since therefore
because for this reason so thus
consequently if…then so that

Figure 8.6 Words and phrases that show cause-and-effect relationships.

Teaching Greek and Latin Roots

A key component in learning to talk science for all students involves the analysis of Greek and Latin roots because they generate the overwhelming majority of science terms. As discussed earlier in the section on morphemes, helping students brainstorm the origin and meaning of technical words might unveil potential connections among the meaning of the word, the student’s language background, and the science register. For example, for Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Catalan speakers, the terms aquatic, aquarium, aquanaut, aqueduct, and aquifer might not be too difficult to learn because the prefix aqu- is very similar to the word they have for water (agua in Spanish, acqua in Italian, água in Portuguese, and aigua in Catalan). Remember, some ELLs might know more academic language than they think! See examples of Greek and Latin roots in Figures 8.7 and 8.8.

Greek Roots Definition Example of Usage
agro, agros field, earth, soil agrobiology, agronomy
archaeo, archaios ancient, old, original archaeology, archaic
bios life, living things biology, biopsy
chroma, chromato color chromophil, chromophore
chrono, chronos time chronograph, chronometer
demos people demographics, pandemic
dendron tree dendrochronology, rhododendron
gastro stomach gastroenteric, gastropod
gram something written or drawn electroencephalogram, telegram
hemo blood hemoglobin, hemophilia
hydro water hydrocarbon, hydrodynamics
metron measure metronome
neuron, neuro sinew, string, nerve neurology, neuromuscular
pous, pod foot octopus, podiatrist, pseudopodia
scopos, skopein spy, watcher, to see microscope, telescope
therme heat thermocline, thermometer
zoion living being, animal zooid, zoology

Figure 8.7 Greek roots.

Latin Roots Definition of Root Example of Usage
anima life, soul, breath, mind animate, inanimate
aqua water aquanaut, aquatic
arbor tree arboreal, arborvitae
avis bird aviation, avian
cavare, cavus hollow cavern, cavity
dens, dentis tooth dentate, denticle, dentin
generare, genus origin, race, species, kind, to beget, produce gender, generate
herba grass, herb herbal, herbarium
laborare to work laboratory
mare sea marine
mors, mortis, mori death, to die mortality, mortuary
mutare, mutatum to change molt, mutation
nox, noct night equinox,  nocturnal
oculus eye binocular, oculomotor
sepsis putrefaction, rotten, poison septic, septicemia
sol sun solar, solstice
toxicare, toxicum to smear with poison toxemia, toxin, toxicology
spirare to breathe expire, inspiration, respiratory,
vivere, vita to live, life revive, viviparous

Figure 8.8 Latin roots.


Using the chart in Figure 8.7, define the word biometric. How does knowledge of the Greek roots in the word gastropod (a class of mollusks containing snails and slugs) change how you think about snails and slugs? What impact do you think such knowledge would have on your students?


For additional information on Latin and Greek roots, see:

  • Jessica’s Common Prefixes, Suffixes, and Root Words at https://www.msu.edu/~defores1/gre/roots/gre_rts_afx2.htm;
  • Root Word Dictionary at http://www.macroevolution.net/root-word-dictionary.html
  • Infoplease at http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0907036.html

Scenario Conclusion
Rita and Yasir survived the geology lesson. In fact, Yasir learned terms and concepts about the Earth’s interior and tectonic plates, and the entire class learned about the ancient Cimmerian plate and about Yasir’s experience during the 2002 earthquake in northern Afghanistan. And everyone also learned how to say “egg” in Dari Persian!


Language is at the heart of science and engineering practices. While these practices bring with them intensive language demands, they also bring learning opportunities for ELLs. As Quinn, Lee and Valdés (2013) indicate, a practice-oriented science classroom can be a rich language-learning as well as science-learning environment, provided teachers ensure that ELLs get the needed support to participate. As the authors note, “Indeed it is a language learning environment for all students, as the discipline itself brings patterns of discourse and terminology that are unfamiliar to most of them” (p.1). Science teachers at all grade levels need to examine the language of science and determine the kinds of language support that all students, but particularly ELLs, need to meet the content objectives successfully. Lessons can be adapted to develop vocabulary, construct background knowledge, modify texts, and build on what students already know.


For Reflection

  1. Think back. English learners are often able to participate in the science class sooner than in other content-area classes when science information is conveyed not only through oral or written forms but also through mathematical and visual representations such as graphs, diagrams, pictures, tables, maps, charts, and models. Reflect on the times when you taught a lesson or when you as a student participated in that kind of lesson. Were learners engaged? Did students learn the concepts and processes? Was it successful?
  2. Examining language from a different perspective. Look at the sample of Arabic text below.

    (From Omniglot at http://www.omniglot.com/writing/arabic.htm)
    What would help you understand its meaning? How can you apply these ideas to your classroom context?

For Action

  1. Analyzing the written language demands in science textbooks. Page through a science textbook. Look both at the content and the format. What are the language demands for your students? In other words, what do students need to know to understand the material for a topic or unit? What features of this book might be challenging for most students, particularly ELLs? What can you do to help students learn how to access science textbooks?
  2. Analyzing the oral language demands of science. As we have discussed earlier, written and spoken language play a significant role in today’s science classroom. Audio- or video-record one or two science lessons.  Listen and/or view those recordings.  What are you noticing in terms of the oral language used in the classroom?  How are teachers and students “talking science”? Are speakers using mostly academic or social language?
  3. Comparing oral and written language use. Compare the kinds of language used in items 1 and 2 above.  How different or similar are the features of oral and written language used in this classroom?  How are students’ understanding of science content and language use being supported by the teacher and the materials?
  4. Many scientific terms are built on Latin and Greek roots. For example, in Earth science, the three basic types of rock are metamorphic, igneous, and sedimentary. These three terms mean “shape-changing,” “fire,” and “sit,” respectively. Knowing the meaning of these roots helps students not only in the science classroom but also in other content areas. Think about Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, about igniting students’ imaginations, or about how many people are leading sedentary lifestyles. Look at the lists of Latin and Greek roots in Figures 8.6 and 8.7 and identify roots that originate terms used across different content areas.


Carrasquillo, A. L., & Rodríguez, V. (2005). Integrating language and science learning. In P. Richard-Amato & M. A Snow (Eds.), Academic success for English language learners: Strategies for K12 mainstream teachers (pp. 436–454). White Plains, NY: Longman, Pearson.

Cazden, C. B. (2001) Classroom discourse: The language of teaching and learning (2nd ed.). Portsmouth: Heinemann.

Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSS). (2010). Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects. National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers, Washington D.C.

Council of Chief State Officers.  (2012). Framework for English language proficiency development standards corresponding to the Common Core State Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards. Washington, DC: Author.

Ernst-Slavit, G., & Pratt, K. L. (2017). Teacher questions: Learning the discourse of science in a linguistically diverse elementary classroom. Linguistics and Education, 40, pp. 1-10. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.linged.2017.05.005

Gee, J.P. (2008). What is academic language? In A. Rosebery & B. Warren (Eds.). Teaching science to English language learners: building on students’ strengths (pp. 57-70). Arlington, VA: NSTA, National Science Teachers Association. Retrieved from http://jamespaulgee.com/pdfs/What%20Is%20Academic%20Language.pdf

Fang, Z., & Schleppegrell, M. J. (2008). Reading in secondary content areas: A language-based pedagogy. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Gottlieb, M., Katz, A., & Ernst-Slavit, G. (2009). Paper to practice: Using the TESOL English language proficiency standards in PreK12 Classrooms. VA: Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.

Lemke, J. (1990). Talking science: Language, learning, and values. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Lee, O., Quinn, H., & Valdés, G. (2013). Science and language for English language learners in relation to next generation science standards and with implication for Common Core State Standards for English language arts and mathematics. Educational Researcher, 42(4), 223–233.

National Research Council (2012). A Framework for K-12 science education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/13165.

O’Hallaron, C. L., Palincsar, A., & Schleppegrell, M. J. (2015). Reading science: Using Systemic Functional Linguistics to support critical language awareness. Linguistics and Education, 32, 55-67.

Quinn, H., Lee, O., & Valdés, G. (2012). Language demands and opportunities in relation to Next Generation Science Standards for English language learners:  What teachers need to know. Commissioned Papers on Language and Literacy Issues in the Common Core State Standards and next Generation Science Standards, 94, 32.

Scarcella, R. (2003). Accelerating academic English: A focus on English language learners. Oakland, CA: Regents of the University of California.

Snow, C.E. (2010).  Academic language and the challenge of reading for learning about science. Science 328, 450-452.

Stoddart, T., Pinal, A., Latzke, M., & Canaday, D. (2002). Integrating inquiry science and language development for English language learners. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 39(8), 664–687.

The Writing Center. (2007). University of North Carolina. Retrieved from https://writingcenter.unc.edu/tips-and-tools/sciences/

Wellington, J. & Osborne, J.F. (2001) Language and literacy in science education Buckingham, PA: Open University Press.

Zwiers, J. (2008). Building academic language: Essential practices for content classrooms. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

  1. Nominalization is any process by which a noun is formed from a verb or adjective, for example, convection, defluoridation, desalination, and sedimentation.


Creative Commons License
Chapter 8: Unlocking the Language of Science by Gisela Ernst-Slavit and Joy Egbert is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book