A new study at Stanford finds that using everyday language helped students learn. The results are only preliminary, since it was a small study and they don’t have a lot of data on students’ english language proficiency, but it is still an interesting and promising bit of research. An excerpt from the Stanford Report tells us:

Usually, elementary school students are expected to learn the concepts and lexicon of photosynthesis—and other scientific subjects—simultaneously.

But according to a recent study by Bryan Brown, an assistant professor of education at Stanford, and Kihyun Ryoo, a doctoral candidate in Stanford’s School of Education, students who learned the basic concepts of photosynthesis in “everyday English” before learning the scientific terms for the phenomenon fared much better on tests than students taught the traditional way.

The traditional approach

To help students master scientific lingo, teachers usually build word walls—interactive displays of the lingo, with graphics illustrating their links to photosynthesis. They hand out vocabulary lists. They use flash cards. They ask students to make up their own definitions.

But Brown and Ryoo say those techniques do not take into account that children learn new words as those words become valuable and meaningful to their lives.

“In contrast to foreign language instruction, where students are learning new ways to express familiar ideas, science instruction often involves the presentation of new ideas expressed through new language,” they write.

This is somewhat related to my old colleague Modesto Tamez’ attitude that vocabulary should be introduced at the end of a lesson, not the beginning (as is traditional). We often present vocab at the beginning of a lesson so we’ve got a common set of vocabulary for talking about a subject. But the result is that students tend to see science as the mastering of a bunch of vocabulary words — here are the words, now I’ll tell you what they mean, and that’s the lesson. Rather, we want students to experience the phenomenon, be intrigued, and then be given the words to talk about what they’re seeing. This is covered in one of my Science Teaching Tips podcasts where Modesto talks about this idea, in an episode called “When Words Fail You.”