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“Good air” is oxygen: first teach concepts, then add vocab, study says

<em>Screenshot originally posted at the ##http://news-service.stanford.edu/news/2008/august20/teachsci-082008.html##Stanford News Service##</em>.
Screenshot originally posted at the ##http://news-service.stanford.edu/news/2008/august20/teachsci-082008.html##Stanford News Service##.

Photosynthesis, glucose, chloroplasts: the language of science can sometimes be a stumbling block for students as they try to understand new concepts. A new study from Stanford University’s School of Education suggests that teaching the ideas first, using simple language, helps students learn a topic better. The researchers created interactive software to teach students about photosynthesis. One version used simple language at the beginning, then added scientific language after students grasped the basic concepts. The other version used the simple language only once before switching to scientific vocabulary.

“The thing that we’re most excited about is that the students in the treatment group”—which learned the basics in everyday English first—”got higher scores on every type of question—multiple choice and open-ended,” Brown said. “They got higher scores when questions were asked in everyday language. They got higher scores when questions were asked in science language. And when they were asked to write answers to open-ended questions, they were much better at writing their ideas in science language.”

The researchers caution that more research is needed with a larger sample size, though they acknowledge that many people find their work intuitively sensible, asking, “Isn’t that just good teaching?”

Teachers, what do you think? Have you tried presenting concepts — in Science or other subject areas — in simple language before transitioning to technical vocabulary?

And parents, I think this presents a possibility for helping your children with topics they are struggling with: break it down for them in language they can understand, but don’t neglect to introduce the vocab once they’ve got the concepts mastered.

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