Towards Academic Language in Science

I am beginning a new approach to my posts with this one. You can either watch the YouTube video  below or read the article under it: the content is the same. You choose your medium. You might get some more images in the video than you get below, but the text/narration are word-for-word.

NOTE: This post is based on / adapted from:

research by Maton, K. (2014) A TALL Order: ‘Legitimation Code Theory for academic language and learning.’ Journal of Academic Language and Learning. pp.34-48, Vol.8(3)

a resource produced by The Bell Foundation (2017) The boiling point of water. Available at: <>


One thing that is very easy to miss when teaching EAL learners is not only just simplifying / making the academic language more accessible to them, but also ensuring that they actually pick this language along the way. In other words, once we’ve simplified the language, used analogies, images or graphic organisers, we need to make sure that they learn the academic language they actually need. It is not good that a learner continues to use words like “watch” or “see” when, really, they should be using “observe” in Science. It is not good that they keep using “move” when, really, it should be “shift” in Geography.

Before we move on to the actual strategies, some things need explaining. What you see is based on the Semantic Waves research by Karl Maton from Australia. He distinguishes semantic gravity, which is how much a word’s meaning is related to its context. For instance, naming an animal has a large gravity, and thus is SG+ in relation to talking about an event from history, which is further removed from our immediate experience, making it SG-. However, that same event from history, when compared to talking about photosynthesis, is SG+ and the Scientific concept SG-.

The other concept Maton talks about is that of semantic density – that is, how dense the meaning of a word is. For instance, “gold” when used in the general non-scientific meaning of “metal” has weaker density, making it SD-, but it is SD+ when used in the field of chemistry in Science. In other words, the density is greater when we use them for technical terms.

So: greater gravity and lesser density are less academic and more concrete uses of vocabulary; whilst smaller gravity and greater density, on the opposite, are more academic. As we talk in our classrooms, we don’t just do one of these, but our talk fluctuates as we use technical terms first, and then use analogies, gestures, pictures and other means to explain (make it SG+ and SD-) concepts to our students. Speaking only academically would mean our students wouldn’t able to access the academic concepts we present them with, and speaking in only concrete high-gravity type terms wouldn’t offer them the academic language they need either. We need to do the both.

Unfortunately, when it comes to EAL learners what you see below actually happens most often – we simplify, but don’t take the time to offer them a way back to the academic language. This is what the strategies presented here are all about. How do we generate the ability to use formal, technical academic language in our EAL learners?

What we need to do – is unpack the language first for them, and once they understand it, repack the academic, so next time they know it, and we can move further up rather than let them linger using simplified concepts rather than the formal language they need to be using.



Here’s an example from a lesson I had earlier this week, where I used one of EAL Nexus resources (Bell Foundation, 2017) for Science and adapted it, of course – a lesson about the point at which water boils. First, the actual terminology and academic words were introduced and explained through the use of pictures and the teacher making analogies. For instance, “gauze”, “tripod”, “Bunsen burner”, “flame” and “beaker”. There were also a number of verbs that needed explaining, e.g. “poured”, “observed”, “lit” and “measured”. We are currently working on the past simple tense as relevant to different subjects, so my language focus was squarely on the past simple verbs here.

The pictures and a simple group work where students needed to arrange the images in the correct order came first. Once that was out of the way, the students were presented with a simple matching exercise, which you can see on the screen now. Here, they needed to match the academic words to their simpler equivalents. “Heated” is “made hotter”, “placed” is “put” and “lit” is “started fire”. What we’re doing here is what the sematic waves theorists in Australia term as “unpacking”. Here, we’re dealing with just a few terms. This might have otherwise been helped with the use of the first language, but I felt we didn’t need that here as the pictures we had just used were enough to see what these words were. I followed this exercises by questioning students, asking them give me the equivalents for spoken-like non-academic words, e.g. the answer to “put water in” would be “poured”.

Now that I felt the students had the understanding of these terms, we proceeded to “repacking”, i.e. getting students to think back to using the academic terms. In my class, I have 3 “sub-levels”, if you will, of students in terms of the level of their English language acquisition. The differentiated sheets you are about to see have been designed for those 3 different levels of students. They are all gap-fills / clozes, but of varying levels of difficulty. All of them, however, focus on changing the non-academic words (verbs) to their harder academic/formal equivalents. The lowest level (red) as you can see contains images and the non-academic words (e.g. “watched” or “started fire“) in brackets next to the gaps as well as the academic words needed in a box at the bottom of the page. Following this, the students need to write the sequence in which the instructions/events take place on the left.


The orange (middle) level gets a slightly different task. Here, as you can see, there is no box with words anymore, but the gaps have the first letter of the desired word. Like the lowest group, they need to sequence the sentences.

The top group has only the “easier” words in brackets, no box, and no first letter provided. I work with an induction group of students; in the mainstream settings, you could choose, of course, to remove the bracketed words entirely for your top group too, but the students would know they need to put in the academic verbs in the gaps.

The students attempted to fill in the gaps, which most of them did successfully (all done with books closed), and following this checked their answers by going to their books. They checked the sequence of sentences, too.

Now, we were almost ready to write!

The orange and green level were given this timeline first, and I asked them to place the connectives / connecting phrases into the relevant categories of “start”, “middle” and “end” first. The orange (middle) level was to write the phrases with connectives in. They were tasked to write 8 sentences – there are 8 sentences / events in the sequence, so they didn’t need to write any compound or complex sentences; rather, they just needed to determine which connectives are to be in used at the start, in the middle and at the end of their writing.

The top – green – level, however, was tasked to have maximum 6 sentences. This means they needed to pair up certain sentences with the connectives “when” and/or “before”, e.g. “When we turned on the gas, we lit the Bunsen burner with a wooden spill.” or “We turned on the gas before we lit the Bunsen burner with a wooden spill.” If they paired two sets of sentences in that way, they’d get 6 sentences altogether.

For the lowest level, I did something different in class that turned out to be far too easy – what I did resulted in them just copying off the previous exercise, only reformatting it and turning it into a list of sentences without connectives. Not a good idea, but one learns from one’s mistakes. In retrospect I would do the following: as you can see, this is a substitution table, which allows one to generate several sentences by choosing different options from the columns starting on the left and moving right. The sentences are mixed up, of course, to check if they understand the sequence of what happened in the experiment. It’s the middle column that is truly important to us – these are the verbs, as it’s the lowest level, they are provided for them, but, clearly, the learners need to remember what they mean now in order to pick the correct one to write the correct sentences. The students need to generate a list of sentences in the correct order, but unlike the higher levels, they do not need to use any connectives yet.

Till the next time!

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