Ensuring students don’t clam up in Science

12 September 2018

In the wake of GCSE results this summer , it is timely to revisit one of the more talked about questions as far as the class of 2018 were concerned in Science, the Oyster question!(AQA Biology Paper 2). Why didn’t you teach us about Oysters screams social media in the hours following the exam, the question was of course about key biological concepts not just oysters.

How can we help students with this, let’s start with the words….



Scientific words are the building blocks of knowledge. The move to knowledge based terminal exams has necessitated explicit teaching of key words and their definitions in a scientific context. The research shows that the benefits are greater for disadvantaged students due to the lack of scientific discussion or literature in the home.





Many science departments have adopted Knowledge organisers, these are designed to include tier 2 and 3 words and Science specific definitions. These provide definitions and sentences including the tier 3 words in context. Students are set the self-quizzing for homework and this will assist with engaging parents in the process of quizzing and increase the scientific literacy of the whole family. Low stakes quizzes are used at the start of lessons and pupils can keep a record of their own progress, giving them increased confidence and motivation as they improve their scientific vocabulary. This could happen in isolation and mean that scientific words are learned but not in context, as in the exam question.



Moving further and using this newly acquired scientific vocabulary requires engagement with complex scientific texts. Teaching these literacy skills is done best in authentic scientific books and texts (Hall and Harding 2003)

they suggest the use of rich scientific texts, possibly taken from scientific text books, research papers, newspapers or journal articles. These must be at the right level for the students in front of you and they must challenge the students, make them think and be interesting.





As well as reading these texts students should take these texts home and discuss with parents and bring back to class where they can be used as part of a class activity during the next lesson. This would join Tier 1 and 3 words and give students a context in which the word is used in Science. Authentic scientific texts also use tier 2 words in both descriptions and questions meaning that phonological understanding of tier 3 words and memorising their definition is not enough. These authentic texts will enable students to access examples like the one below.



Students will be able to link tier 3 words learned through knowledge organizers self-quizzing and low stakes testing (impurities, crystal, molecules, condensation, nuclei) to words of everyday speech (in order to, these are known, difficult to) to tier 2 general academic words (addition, require, achieve). This will ensure that they have access to the 95% of words needed to ensure reading comprehension as illustrated above. Being able to access to the full question will ensure that context as in the oyster question will not cause students to clam up!


  1. Find appropriate authentic texts from Journal articles, text books, news articles and popular science books.
  2. Use these as part of class activities and send them home for pupils to discuss.
  3. Teaching literacy skills is best in interesting scientific contexts and the more contexts the better so unusual or different ones don’t catch students out.


Hall & Harding, 2003
Nunes et al 2017


Posted on 12 September 2018
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