How do I support EAL learners with scientific language?

'EAL Teaching through the Learning Village' - Implementation course, London 18th May
‘EAL Teaching through the Learning Village’ – Implementation course, Birmingham 8th June
25th February 2017
Support EAL/ESL learners in your IPC units - Webinar
Support EAL/ESL learners in your IPC units – Webinar
15th March 2017

How do I support EAL learners with scientific language?

Gemma Fanning, EAL Specialist

In Science, EAL learners need to understand scientific language, both written and oral, as well as being able to work with command verbs such as ‘discuss’, ‘explain’, ‘evaluate’ etc. (Mertin, 2014). This makes the language required for Science both academic and challenging and, as a result, it can become extremely difficult for learners to access the subject content. So how do we make Science lessons comprehensible to EAL learners and provide what Krashen (1998) terms ‘comprehensible input’?

Mertin identifies four aspects (and advantages) of teaching EAL in the scientific context.

  1. New vocabulary: the new vocabulary in science is likely to be new to native speakers too and will therefore require explicit teaching from the teacher. This will not only benefit EAL learners, but all students in the class.
  2. New symbols: there are many international scientific symbols, which the learners may already be using, or may find easy to learn, compared with written texts that are often difficult to comprehend.
  3. Graphic representation: Science is a visual subject, which can be demonstrated well through pictures and diagrams, providing additional comprehension opportunities.
  4. Practical application: the practical nature of Science allows learners to be more involved in their learning; they are able to observe experiments without having to read about them.

These advantages form a great platform for supporting scientific learning. We can then consider ways in which to build on these foundations.

Scientific vocabulary

Beginning with vocabulary, it is important to understand which words are used specifically for Science and which words have a different meaning in Science. Mertin (2012) provides us with an extract from a Science textbook to illustrate this. Relevant new Science words are shown in bold type. Words that could hinder EAL learners if they do not understand them are underlined.

A small amount of carbon occurs as the free element in the Earth’s crust. It can occur as diamond and graphite. These are allotropes of carbon.
Diamond is a very hard, clear solid that can be cut and polished so that it sparkles in light. Graphite is a dark, greasy solid. Charcoal and soot are forms of graphite. They are made by heating coal, wood or animal bones in just a little air.
(Mertin, 2014, Complete Chemistry, p.238)

Development of vocabulary is something you can do in advance; learners could begin to build up a word list with meanings and their translations. At the end of a particular unit, learners will have a complete list.


Sentence structures

There are many ways to reinforce learning from this point. For example, learners can begin to access more complex sentence structures, to build sentences for reading and writing about Science. Learners who are new to English will begin with subject-verb-object structures, so a good starting point is therefore to consider the verb forms in Science. In this subject, many verbs are regular, with past participle forms ending in ‘ed’ (Sang and Chadwick, 2014). 

For example: heat, heated, heated
boil, boiled, boiled

There are also irregular verbs, however, which learners will have to memorise:

For example: rise, rose, risen
grow, grew, grown

Passive voice

The more complex sentences used in Science are often passive, with the passive voice used in statements of facts and when describing processes and experiments (Sand and Chadwick, 2014).

For example: Mass is measured in kilograms
Energy is released in nuclear reactions
The charge rod was attracted to the cloth

An active sentence follows the structure:

subject + verb + (usually) object:
Newton’s Laws describe the properties of motion.

The subject = Newton’s Laws
The verb = describe
The object: the properties of motion

To make this sentence passive, we change it as follows:
The properties of motion are described by Newton’s Laws.


Conditionals are also often used in Science. For example, you can use the zero conditional to state the conclusion of an experiment and the first conditional for predictions.

Conditional Form Example 1 Example 2
Zero Conditional If + present simple, + present simple If you heat ice, it melts If ice is heated, it melts
First Conditional If + present simple, + will + the infinitive If you burn coal, you will pollute the atmosphere If more weights are needed, the spring will extend further
Second Conditional If + past simple, + would + the infinitive If you studied more, you would pass the exams  
Third Conditional if + past perfect, would + have + past participle If we had used a micrometer instead of a rule, we would have measured the thickness of the wire more accurately.  

The second conditional may be used when discussing how a situation or process would be different if you changed the conditions, or the third conditional when evaluating experiments.

Relative clauses

Sentences with which EAL learners may need more support include those with relative clauses. These sentences help EAL learners write clear definitions in Science.

To help learners with sentences with relative  clauses, you could produce a table to support them, working within the following categories to build a sentence: 

The article (not always needed) The word being defined The verb ‘to be’ The category the word belongs to Which/that/whose etc. The rest of the sentence
An ammeter is an instrument that measures electric current in amps.
  Refraction is a process where light rays bend.
The moon is a satellite which orbits the Earth.

(Adapted from Sang and Chadwick, 2014)

Lab reports

When producing a lab report, you’ll need to consider what learner will need to write after they completed some of their expiments. It may be useful to model some simple questions, so that learners are aware what information they will need to write about. For example, Mertin (2014) lists are following questions:

  • What do we want to find out?
  • What equipment do we need?
  • What do we think will happen?
  • What results will we get?
  • How can we show our results?
  • What is the conclusion?

The resource attached provides you with some ideas on how to support your learners with developing scientific language. Try to space out each grammatical learning point, so that a learner can get to grips with using one, before moving onto the next.



Gallagher, R.M and Ingram, P (2000) Complete Chemistry. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Krashen, Stephen, 1988. Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning. Prentice Hall International

Mertin, Patricia, 2013. Breaking Through the Language Barrier: Effective Strategies for Teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) Students in Secondary School Mainstream CL (World Class Schools Series). Edition. John Catt Educational

Sang, David and Chadwick, Timothy, 2014. Breakthrough to CLIL for Physics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Across Cultures

Enter your details below to access the free download.