Science Success is Built on Language

Sentence Diagramming Helps ELLs Achieve

by Joy Lin

As someone who did not grow up with English as my first language, I always found it particularly difficult to read science articles and textbooks. Usually, the text included so much technical vocabulary and jargon that I was overwhelmed by the number of new words I had to stop and look up; oftentimes I would have trouble understanding entire sentences if they contained multiple unknown words or phrases. Looking back, reading would have been much easier if I had the skills to break down sentence structures in order to identify the key nouns and verbs. Sentence diagramming is a pedagogical approach that guides students through complex sentences, breaking them up into more manageable pieces that help students understand the meaning of specific words. In science courses, much of the vocabulary is unfamiliar as most people do not encounter it in their day-to-day interactions, which could lead to higher levels of confusion and misunderstanding, especially for English Language Learners (ELL).

Group of laboratory flasks empty or filled with a clear liquid on blue tint scientific graphics background and their reflection on a tableIn order for students in Texas to graduate, they are required to pass a biology end-of-course exam. Throughout this course, students study living organisms which includes subjects like anatomy, behavior, and interaction. The amount of reading required to learn this information is staggering, and test questions are often long sentences describing different scenarios the students would have to navigate through to provide a correct answer. For students not yet proficient in the English language or content, this can act as a roadblock and hinder their success.

In addition, students also need chemistry as a science credit to graduate. In chemistry, students are asked to handle chemicals in labs and perform mathematical calculations based on their findings. Another example highlighting the importance of reading comprehension stems from science labs and projects, where a lack of English literacy can become physically dangerous. Students handling hazardous chemicals in class put everyone at risk if they do not have the ability to fully comprehend the warnings and precautions. Additional risks could arise if they misread the manual for sensitive equipment or the steps to perform a lab. If safety procedures are not followed, students could get hurt. It is crucial then that all students be properly prepared in case of accidents on how to use the eyewash station, fire blankets, and other precautionary items.

Students encounter similar comprehension issues in other science courses, including physics, geology, aquatic science, and astronomy. Upon learning a long list of new vocabulary words, they must read and understand articles using these new terms. Too often, students give up as soon as they see test questions in paragraph form because the process of making sense of it all is too discouraging. If we were to teach them how to break down each question in order to get to the main point, it would make the process more tolerable for those who struggle with the English language and could lead to higher success rates. As previously stated, sentence diagramming is an approach to teaching and learning that helps readers overcome literacy challenges by understanding the main point each sentence is trying to convey, especially in vocabulary-riddled text.

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