The importance of language proficiency for answering scientific questions

While it’s not the purpose of an assessment of e.g. science, quite often in reality you are measuring at least in part the language proficiency of the pupils or students. As this new study shows, this is very important in an age that a lot of students have a different mother tongue than the language used in classroom.

From the press release:

Providing English-language learners (ELLs) with equal assessment opportunities is proving particularly difficult and is, says the report, one of the most challenging problems in educational policy and practice.

‘Mitigating the effect of language in the assessment of science: A study of English-language learners in primary classrooms in the United Kingdom’ by Dr Oksana Afitska from Lancaster University and Dr Timothy Heaton, of the University of Sheffield, is just published in the journal, Science Education.

The authors warn that teachers and assessors must be responsive to new practices and that education professionals should play an important role in promoting discipline-specific learning through appropriate, formative and equal teaching and assessment methods.

And this, adds the report, includes recognising the multiple educational, linguistic and sociocultural dimensions that ELLs bring into the classroom.

Dr Afitska and Dr Heaton analysed the performance of 485 students, both English native speakers (ENSs) and ELLs, across five UK schools in the seven to eleven year age group on standardised science tasks.

Results showed that while the ELLs persistently performed more poorly than their English native speaking peers, the gap between them depended significantly on assessment traits.

ELLs were particularly disadvantaged when responses required active language production and/or when assessed on specific scientific vocabulary.

“These conclusions lead us to suggest that ELLs may often possess the intended underlying scientific understanding but lack the required vocabulary and language skills to demonstrate it appropriately during assessment,” said Dr Afitska.

In one of the formal assessment tasks cited in the report, youngsters were invited to give one feature of a penguin and describe how it helped the penguin live in its environment.

One ELL child had written a ‘fluffy tummy to help keep it warm’. However, this did not meet any of the required answers that included ‘thick feathers’ or ‘fur/hair/thick coat’. The child did not get any marks.

“The consequences of poor performance in these tests are highly significant for a learner,” adds the report.

“Potentially influencing future opportunities and the direction of study at postsecondary education levels. Indeed, poor performance can affect a student’s perception of themselves as a good Science, English or Mathematics learner. It may also lead to a student being streamed into a lower ability group or class or moved to a more vocational line of study that does not provide such an academically challenging curriculum.

“Addressing this issue is, therefore, a key step if we wish to tackle the current under-representation of linguistically diverse learners in STEM postsecondary education.”


Abstract of the study:

Children coming from homes where English is not their first language constitute a significant and increasing proportion of classrooms worldwide. Providing these English‐language learners (ELLs) with equitable assessment opportunities is a challenge. We analyze the performance of 485 students, both English‐native‐speakers (ENSs) and ELLs, across five schools within the United Kingdom in the 7–11‐year age group on standardized summative Science assessment tasks. Logistic regression with random effects assesses the impact of English‐language proficiency, and its interactions with question traits, on performance. Traits investigated were: question focus; need for active language production; presence/absence of visuals; and question difficulty. Results demonstrated that, while ELLs persistently performed more poorly, the gap to their ENS peers depended significantly upon assessment traits. ELLs were particularly disadvantaged when responses required active language production and/or when assessed on specific scientific vocabulary. Presence of visual prompts did not help ELL performance. There was no evidence of an interaction between topic difficulty and language ability suggesting lower ELL performance is not related to capacity to understand advanced topics. We propose assessment should permit flexibility in language choice and production type for ELLs with low English language proficiency; while simultaneously recommend subject‐specific teaching of scientific language begins at lower stages of schooling.

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