How do I support EAL Learners with Scientific Language?

‘EAL Teaching through the Learning Village’ – Implementation course, Birmingham 8th June
25th February 2017
Support EAL/ESL learners in your IPC units – Webinar
15th March 2017
Show all

How do I support EAL Learners with Scientific Language?

Gemma Fanning – EAL Specialist

In Science, EAL learners need to understand scientific language, both written and oral, as well as to work with the command verbs such as; discuss, explain, evaluate etc… (Mertin, 2014). This means the language required for Science is academic and challenging and, as a result, it can become extremely difficult for learners to access the subject content. This begs the questions; How do we make the lessons comprehensible to EAL learners and provide what Krashen (1998) terms as ‘comprehensible input’?

Mertin (2014) identifies four advantages of learning EAL in the scientific context.

  1. New vocabulary: The new vocabulary in science is likely to be new to native speakers and therefore requires explicit teaching from the teacher. This will not only benefit EAL learners but all other students in the class.
  2. New symbols: There are many international scientific symbols which the learners may already be using or find easy to learn in comparison to accessing texts that are often difficult to comprehend.
  3. Graphic representation: Science is a visual subject which can be demonstrated well through pictures and diagrams. This provides additional comprehension opportunities.
  4. Practical application: The practical nature of science allows learners to be involved in their learning so they are able to observe experiments without having to read about them.

These advantages form a great platform for supporting scientific learning. We can then consider ways in which to build on these foundations. Beginning with vocabulary, it is important to understand which words are used specifically for science and which words have a different meaning in science. Mertin (2012) provides us with an extract from a science textbook, highlighting new words in science in bold and underlining words which could hinder EAL learners if they do not understand the words:


A small amount of carbon occurs as the free element in the Earth’s crust. It can occur as diamond and graphite. These are allotropes of carbon.

Diamond is a very hard, clear solid that can be cut and polished so that it sparkles in light. Graphite is a dark, greasy solid. Charcoal and soot are forms of graphite. They are made by heating coal, wood, or animal bones in just a little air.

(Cited: Mertin 2014, Complete Chemistry p. 238)

This is something you can do in advance and learners could begin to build up a word list with the word meanings and their translations. At the end of the unit, the learners will have a complete list. There are many ways to then reinforce the learning. Here’s one example:

To consider building sentences for both reading and writing, learners will need to access more complex sentences. Learners who are new to English will begin with subject – verb – object structures so a good starting point would be to consider the verb forms in science. Many verbs are regular, with past participle forms ending in ‘ed’ (Sang and Chadwick, 2014).

For example: heat, heated, heated
boil, boiled, boiled

There are also irregular verbs which learners will have to memorise:

For example: rise, rose, risen
grow, grew, grown

The more complex sentences are often passive. In Science, passive voice is often used in statements of facts, in describing processes and for describing experiments (Sang and Chadwick, 2014).

For example: Mass is measured in kilograms
Energy is released in nuclear reactions
The charge rod was attracted to the cloth

An active sentence follows the structure:

subject + verb + (usually) object: Newton’s Laws describe the properties of motion.

The subject = Newton’s Laws
The verb = describe
The object: the properties of motion

To make this sentence passive we would change it to: The properties of motion are described by Newton’s Laws

Conditionals are also often used, for example, you can use the zero conditional to state the conclusion of an experiment and the first conditional for predictions.

Conditional Form Example 1 Example 2
Zero Conditional If + present simple, + present simple If you heat ice, it melts If ice is heated, it melts
First Conditional If + present simple, + will + the infinitive If you burn coal, you will pollute the atmosphere If more weights are nedeed, the spring will extend further
Second Conditional If + past simple, + would + the infinitive If you studied more, you would pass the exams
Third Conditional if + past perfect, would + have + past participle If we had used a micrometer instead of a rule, we would have measured the thickness of the wire more accurately.

The second conditional may be used when discussing how a situation or process would be different if you changed the conditions, or the third conditional when evaluating experiments.

Another sentence structure which EAL learners may need more support with is relative clauses. These help EAL learners write clear definitions.

To help learners with this, you could produce a table to support them offering the following headings to build the sentence:

The article – Not always needed The word being defined The verb to be The category the word belongs to Which/that/whose etc The rest of the sentence
An Ammeter is an instrument that measures electric current in amps.
Refraction is a process where light rays bend.
The Moon is a satellite which orbits the earth.

(Adapted from Sang and Chadwick, 2014)

When producing a lab report, you’ll need to consider what learners will need to write after they have completed some of their experiments, it may be useful to model some simple questions so learners are aware of what information they will need to write about. For example Mertin (2014) lists the following:

  • What do we want to find out?
  • What equipment do we need?
  • What do we think will happen?
  • What results will we get?
  • How can we show our results?
  • What is the conclusion?

The resource attached provides you with some ideas on how to support your learners with developing scientific language. Try and space out each grammatical learning point so learner can comes to grips with using one before moving onto the next.

Download the resource here!


Gallagher, R.M and Ingram, P (2000) Complete Chemistry. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Krashen, Stephen, 1988. Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning. Prentice Hall International

Mertin, Patricia, 2013. Breaking Through the Language Barrier: Effective Strategies for Teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) Students in Secondary School Mainstream CL (World Class Schools Series). Edition. John Catt Educational

Sang, David and Chadwick, Timothy, 2014. Breakthrough to CLIL for Physics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Comments are closed.