During the snowy weather, cooped up in the flat, I had a happy time applying the linguistic insights of BtL to a GCSE exam paper in Science. I went through questions and answers highlighting in green the frequent occurrences of the passive, nominalizations in yellow and I added special technical words that are not part of non-scientific vocabulary in pink (e.g. ethane, ethanol, fermentation) – there were a lot of these and it is an obvious feature of scientific language.
It was clear too that science does not use only language to explain the world. Other semiotic systems are essential to its ways of thinking and communicating – these I found in abundance on the exam paper. I highlighted tables, diagrams (especially useful for describing apparatus for laboratory experiments) and maths. (“Science is the mathematization of knowledge.”
I then played with the idea of using Mike Hoey’s discourse structures as a framework of analysis – general/particular, problem/solution, compare/contrast (Book 3 of BtL and part 2 of the Fasttrack). This turned out to be very powerful. Eight of the fifteen question used compare/contrast structures. Problem/solution occurred in three, not unexpectedly for exploring the applications of science.
The most promising field for further analysis is that (I hypothesize) all the questions are structured in terms of general/particular, indeed of abstract/concrete. Book 2 of BtL takes pupils on the journey from everyday concrete language to the language of abstract thought (unfamiliar to many learners) which is the foundation of academic success (Part 5 of the Fasttrack – The Language of Ideas). Science, more than any other subject, is based on abstract ideas linked in systems (e.g. respiration, absorption etc. make up the system of photosynthesis). Such abstract concepts underpin every exam question, though they are not always explicitly stated.
Last week I had a very welcome visit from four of the teachers at MMHS. I gave them copies of my annotated exam paper. The response of the Science teacher was really enthusiastic – she likes the analysis as much as I do. We are looking forward to co-operating in refining the model, so that science can be made less mysterious.