Academic Language and the Challenge of Reading for Learning About Science

et al.Catherine E. Snow,
for Learning About Science Academic Language
and the Challenge of ReadingDOI:
10.1126/science.1182597 , 450 (2010);
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their l earners ’ st r u g g l e s t o c o m e t o t e
r m s w i t h unfamiliar l anguage, discourse
patterns, and the often f ormidable conventions
of science ( 27 ).
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Academic Language and
the Challenge of Reading
for Learning About Science
Catherine E. Snow
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10.1126/science.1 182596
is no single variety of educated American
English. Academic language features
vary as a function of discipline, topic, and
mode (written versus oral, for example),
but there are certain common
characteristics that distinguish highly
academic from less academic or more
conversational language and that make
academic language— even well-wri tten,
careful ly c onstructed, and professionally
edited academic language—difficult to
comprehend and even harder to produce
( 8 ).
arts (mostly narratives) suggests that the
comprehension of “academic language”
may be one source of the challenge. So
what is academic language?
iteracy scholars and s econdary teachers
alike are puzzled by the frequency w ith which
s tudent s who read words accuratelyand
fluently have trouble comprehending text (1,
2). Such students have m astered what was
traditionally considered the m ajor obstacle t o
reading success: the depth and complexity of
the English spelling system. But many middleand high-school students are less able to
convert their word-reading skills into
comprehension w hen confronted with texts in
s cience (or m ath or social studies) than they
are when confront ed with texts of fiction or
discursi ve essays . The greater diff iculty of
science, math, and social studies texts than of
texts encountered in English language
Harvard Graduate School of Educatio n, Harvard
University, Cambridge, MA.
gDownloaded from
c 2010 VOL 328 SCIENCE
m 450
From (spelling as in the original
Often times guys get caught up in the hype of having a big HP motor in their
lolo. I frequently get asked whats the best way to get big numbers out of
their small block. The answer is not HP, but torque. "You sell HP, you feel
torque" as the old saying goes. Most of us are running 155/80/13 tires on
our lolo's. Even if you had big HP numbers, you will *never* get that power
to the ground, at least off the line. I have a 64 Impala SS 409, that i built
the motor in. While it is a completely restored original (I drive it rolling
on 14" 72 spoke cross laced Zeniths), the motor internals are not. It now
displaces 420 CI, with forged pistons and blalanced rotating assembly. The
intake, carb and exhaust had to remain OEM for originality's sake, and that
greatly reduces the motors potential. Anyway, even with the original 2 speed
powerglide, it spins those tires with alarming ease, up to 50 miles per hour!
In my 62, I built a nice 383 out of an 86 Corvette. I built it for good bottom
end pull, since it is a lowrider with 8 batteries. And since it rides on
the obligitory 13's, torque is what that car needs. It pulls like an ox right
from idle, all the way up to its modest 5500 redline. But I never take it
that high, as all the best power is from 1100 to 2700 RPM.
So when considering an engine upgrade, look for modifications that improve
torque. That is what your lolo needs!
Posted by Jason Dave, Sept 2009
Jason you are right on bro. I have always found an increase in torque
placement has not only provided better top end performance but also improved
gas mileage in this expensive gas times.
Posted by Gabriel Salazar, Nov 2009
Fig. 1. Examples of nonacademic text (Lowrider, top) and academic text (TutorVista, bottom).
derives from m embership in a community th a n s p e c if i c c la i m s . Ma i n t a in i n g th
committed t o a shared epistemology; this e i mp e r s o n a l authoritative s tance creates
(“Jason you are r ight on bro ”).
stance is expressed t hrough a r eduction a distanced tone that is often puzzling to
Though both t he Lowrider authors are in the use of personal pronouns, a
adolescent r eaders and is extremely difficult for
writing t o i nform, they are not
preference for epistemically warranted
adolescents to emulate in wr i ti n g .
assuming the i mpersonal aut
evaluations (such as “ri g o r o u s s t u d yPerhaps the simplest basis f or comparing
horitative voice that is characteristic of ” and “qu e s t i o n a b l e a n a l y s i s
the Lo wr i d e r a n d Tu t o r Vi st a t e x t s
academic language. They claim t heir ”)overpersonallyexpressi ve evaluations (s i s t o c o n si d e r h o w rare in other
authority t o provide information about uch as “great st udy ” and “funky analys contexts are the words t hey use most
the advant age of torque over
is”), and a focus on general rather
horsepower adjust ments on t he basi
s of personal experience. The
Lever arm
Torque is the product of the magnitude of the force and the lever arm
of the force. What is the significance of this concept in our everyday
Dependence of torque on lever arm
To increase the turning effect of force, it is not necessary to increase the
magnitude of the force itself. We may increase the turning effect of the force
by changing the point of application of force and by changing the direction
of force.
Axis of
Let us take the case of a heavy door. If a force is applied at a point, which
is close to the hinges of the door, we may find it quite difficult to open or
close the door. However, if the same force is applied at a point, which is at
the maximum distance from hinges, we can easily close or open the door. The
task is made easier if the force is applied at right angles to the plane of
the door.
When we apply the force the door turns on its hinges. Thus a turning effect
is produced when we try to open the door. Have you ever tried to do so by applying
the force near the hinge? In the first case, we are able to open the door with
ease. In the second case, we have to apply much more force to cause the same
turning effect. What is the reason?
The turning effect produced by a force on a rigid body about a point, pivot
or fulcrum is called the moment of a force or torque. It is measured by the
product of the
force and the
distance of the
pivot from the line
of action of the
force = Force x Perpendicular distance of the pivot from the
force. The unit of moment of force is newton metre (N m).
In the above example, in the first case the perpendicular distance of the
line of action of the force from the hinge is much more than that in the second
case. Hence, in the second case to open the door, we have to apply greater
on May 13, 2010 www.sciencemag.orgDownloaded from SCIENCE VOL 328 23 APRIL 2010 451
Science, Language, and
frequently. The rarest words used i n t he
Science t eachers are not generally well
Lowrider text are t he special term “lol o ”
prepared t o help t heir students penetrate
and its alternative form “low r ider, ”“up g r a the linguistic puzzles that science texts
d e , ”“carb, ”“HP, ”“exhaust,”“spin, ” and
present. They of course recognize that
“torque. ” Only two words from the Academic teaching vocabulary i s key, but typically
Word List (10 ), a list of words used
focus on t he science vocabulary ( the
frequently across academic texts of diff
bolded w ords in the t ext), often without
erent disciplines, appear in this passage.
recognizing that those bolded words are
The Tu t o r Vi s t a t e x t r a r e w o r d s i n defined with general-purpose academic
words t hat s tudent s also do not know.
c l u d e “magnitude,” “perpendicular,
”“lever,”“pivot, ”“hinge,”“fulcrum, ” and
Consider the TutorVi st a definition of
“torque,” and it uses t he academic words
torque: “To r q u e i s t h e p r o d u c t o f t h
e magnitude of the force and the lever arm
“tas k , ”“maxi mum ,”“significance,” and
of the force. ” Many 7th graders are
“illust rati on. ” The difference i n word s
election reflects t he convention i n t he
unfamiliar with the t erms “magnitude ” and
more academic text of presenting precise
“lever ”;andsome proportion will think t hey
understand “product,”
information in a dense, concise manner.
Nominalizations are a grammatical pr
ocess of converting entire s entences (such as
“Gutenberg invented the printing press
”)intophrasesthat can then be embedded in
other s entences (such as “Gutenberg ’s
invention of the printing press revolutionized
the dissemination of information”).
Nominalizations are crucial to the conciseness
expected in academic language. I n t he Tu t o
r Vi s t a s e n t e n c e “We m a y i n c r e a s e
t h e t u r n ing eff ect of the f orce by changing
the point of application of f orce and by
changing the direction of force,”“application”
and “direction” are nominalizations
representing entire pr opositions. “Application ”
is shorthand for “where w e apply,” and
“direction ” is shorthand for “how we direct.”
Thus , although this sentence has t he same
apparent s tructure as “We c a n g e t a s m i l
e f r o m a b a b y by changing his diaper and
by patting his back,” the processing load is
much higher. “Increase” in the original s
entence i s a verb referring to a r elation
between two quantities, whereas “get ” in the
baby-sentence adaptation refers to an action
or effect in the r eal world. “Diaper ” and “back
” are physical entities subjected to actions,
whereas “application ” and “direction” are
themselves actions that have been turned into
nouns. Part of the complexity of academic
language derives f rom the fact that we use t
he syntactic structures acquired f or talking
about agents and actions to talk about entities
and relations, without recognizing t he
challenge that t hat transition poses to the
reader. I n particular, in science classes we m
ay expect students t o process t hese
sentences without explicit instruction i n t heir
“force,” and “arm ” without r ealizing t hat t
hose terms are being used i n technical,
academic ways here, w ith m eanings quite di
ff erent from t hose of daily l ife. Yet this
definition, with its s ophisticated and unfamiliar
w ord m eanings, i s t he basis f or all the rest
of the TutorVista exposition: the trade-off
between magnitude and direction of force.
Efforts to he lp s tudent s understand
science cannot ignore their need to
understand the words used to write and talk
about science: the allpu rpo s e a ca dem i c
w or ds a s wel l as t he d isci pline specifi c
ones. Of course some students acquire
academic vocabulary on their own, if they
read widely and if their comprehension skills
are strong enough to support inferences
about the meaning of unknown words (11 ).
The fact that many adolescents prefer
reading Web sites to books (12 ), however,
somewhat decreases access to good models
of academic language even for those
interested in technical topi cs. Thus, t hey
have f ew opportunities to learn the academic
vocabulary that is c rucial across their
content-area learning. It is also possible t o
explicitly teach academic vocabulary t o m
iddleschool s tudents. Word Generation i s a
middleschool program developed by the
Strategic Education Research Partnership t
hat embeds allpurpose academic words i n i
nteresting topics and provides activities for
use in math, s cience, and social studies as
well as English l anguage arts classes i n w
hich the target w ords are used ( see t he We
b s i t e f o r e x a m p l e s ) ( 13 ). Among the
academic w ords taught in Word Generation
are t hose used to make, assess, and defend
claims, s uch as “data,”“hypothesis,”“affi r m
,”“convince,”“disprove,” and “interpret. ” We d
e s i g n e d Wo r d G e n eration to f ocus on
dilemmas, because these promote discussion
and debate and provide motivating contexts
for s tudents and teachers t o use t he target
words. For example, one week is devoted to
the t opic of whether junk food should be
banned from sc hools, and another t o
whether physician-assisted suicide should be
l egal. Discussion i s i n itse lf a key
contributor to science learning ( 14) and to
reading comprehension (15 , 16 ). Words l
earned through explicit teaching are unlike ly
to be retained i f t hey are taught in lists r
ather t han embedded i n m eaningful texts
and i f opportunities to use t hem i n
discussion, debate , and writing are not
It is unrealistic to expect all m iddle- or
precision of word choice, and use of
highschool s tudents t o become proficient
nominalizations to refer t o complex processes
producers of academic language. M any
—reflect the need to present complicated
graduate students still struggle t o m anage t he ideas in effi cient ways. Students m ust be abl
authoritative s tance, and t he self-presentation e to r ead texts that use these features if they
as an expert t hat justifies it, i n their writing. And are t o become independent learners of
it is i mportant to note t hat not all f eatures
science or s ocial s tudies. T hey m ust have
associated with the academic writing style ( suchaccess to t he all-purpose academic
a s the use of passive voice, impenetrability of vocabulary that i s used t o talk about
prose constructions, and indifference t o literary knowledge and that they will need to use i n m
niceties) are desirable. But the ce ntral fe atures aking t heir own arguments and evaluating
of a cade m ic lan guage —grammatical
others’ arguments. Mechanisms for t eaching t
embeddings , s ophisticated and abstract
hose words and the ways that scientists use t
vocabul ary,
hem s hould be a part of the s cience
curriculum. Collaborations between desi gners
of science curricula and l iteracy scholars are
needed to develop and evaluate methods fo r
h el p i n g s t ud e n t s m a s t e r t h e l a n gu
a g e of s ci e nc e at the u nd ergraduate and
h igh-school levels a s well as at the mi
ddle-school level that Word Generation is
currently serving.
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h e St r at e g i c Ed u ca t io n R e s e ar ch P ar t ne r
s hi p an d re s e a rc h f u n d e d b y t he Sp e nc e r
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tt F o u nd at i on , t h e Ca rn e g i e Co r p o ra t io n
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10.1126/science.1 182597
23 APRIL 2010 VOL 328 SCIENCE www.sciencemag.org452
mag.orgDownloaded from
References and Notes1. Carnegie Council on