Literacy and knowledge acquisition in science education for second-language learners | Skolforskningsinstitutet

Literacy and knowledge acquisition in science education for second-language learners

The Swedish Institute for Educational Research works continuously to identify teaching-related subject areas where the need for research-based knowledge is considered to be great. This is done in dialogue with school employees, with representatives of government agencies and organisations within the school system, and with researchers within the field of educational sciences.

Printed Literacy and Knowledge Acquisition in Science Education for Second-language Learners

One important area that has been identified during this work concerns the learning of newly arrived pupils and other second-language learners, and how to approach language development to strengthen them in all school subjects, i.e. how to work with literacy and knowledge acquisition. In this review, second-language learner refers to a pupil who is taught in a language that represents a second language for the pupil, and where the pupil is in an early stage of their acquisition and has not yet reached a level in this language that is on par with the pupil’s age and cognitive development level.

The question that forms the basis for the review is as follows:

How can the teaching of science subjects be designed to support the literacy and knowledge acquisition of second-language learners in the senior level of comprehensive school and in upper-secondary school?

Teaching methods that promote literacy and knowledge acquisition refer to the approach by which we deliberately try to strengthen the knowledge acquisition of the second-language learner and the language skills they need to be able to express this new knowledge. We chose to focus on the science subjects as these may pose a challenge for second-language learners given that scientific language is both dense with terminology and abstract.


On the basis of the respective focus of the studies included in the review, we have outlined the results in four main categories, between which there are no sharp dividing lines. The four categories are

  • the linguistic resources in the classroom
  • classroom interaction – structure and nature of conversations
  • focus on language and scientific language use
  • introducing the pupils to different scientific genres of expression.

In addition to distinguishing the pupil’s first and second language, it is important for the reading of the review to also distinguish between the different categories of language that the pupils encounter and progressively develop, such as everyday language, school language and subject language. Everyday language is the language that the pupils absorb the fastest. School language is the language used generally at school. Compared to everyday language, it is more theoretical and abstract. Subject language is strongly characterised by the subject’s terms and concepts and thematic patterns (network of meaning), and is thus even more elusive for a second-language learner. By working with literacy and knowledge acquisition, the teaching is expected to support the pupils’ development, both in the second language and in their understanding of the subject, in this case science.

The linguistic resources in the classroom

Most of the studies included in this review confirm the results of previous research. The studies show, for example, that the use of second-language learners’ first language and everyday experiences can facilitate their understanding of the scientific content and their participation in joint conversations. The scientific concepts addressed in the teaching have been developed in a context that differs from the everyday. It is therefore not obvious for the pupils to use these concepts.

As a teacher, must be aware that there is a risk of pupils being misled and misinterpreting words or translating incorrectly, which can lead to pupils misunderstanding the scientific meaning. This can happen, for example, when words in the pupils’ second language have different meanings in everyday language and in the subject language. One of the studies presents an example where the term “solution” in a chemistry class was understood by the pupils to mean the solution to a problem.

Several of the studies refer to different types of linguistic resources. Teaching with a focus on literacy and knowledge acquisition should therefore not be based solely on literacy skills, but can also incorporate different visual symbols, ranging from gestures and body language to audiovisual and digital resources.

Classroom interaction – structure and nature of conversations

The research also provides examples of how the teacher can use the pupils’ first language. Conversations in the classroom can take place in many different ways, both in terms of the dialogue structure, i.e. who is talking, and in terms of the nature of the conversations, i.e. how they talk. Working in pairs or in small groups can contribute to active participation in the classroom interaction and have a positive impact on understanding, especially if the second-language learners are allowed to speak their first language. In conversation involving the whole class, there is a risk that the pupils will not participate as much as their peers who have the language of instruction as their first language.

As regards the nature of the conversations, the studies show that a unilateral focus on terminology in the teaching can impoverish the classroom dialogue and limit the pupils’ development of the scientific language. The network of meaning – the thematic pattern – that ties together the terms and concepts is not clarified for the pupils when the teaching is conducted in this way. Examples in supporting documentation indicate that pupils who are encouraged to have exploratory conversations develop improved abilities in terms of scientific problem solving and scientific reasoning.

Focus on language and scientific language use

There can be value in having a link between everyday language and subject language for the purpose of achieving a lasting and deep understanding of the subject. Examples of how such a link can be built may involve focusing on how terms and concepts are interrelated, i.e. thematic patterns. However, a one-sided focus on terms and concepts in teaching can impoverish the classroom dialogue and limit the pupils’ development of the scientific language. Revoicing, where the teacher repeats what the pupils say with other more scientifically correct words, can also increase the quality of the classroom interaction.

Subject-specific words can create difficulties for second-language learners. This may be because the words in certain cases have other completely different or slightly different meanings in an everyday context, like with the “solution” example.

The studies included in the review use various examples to highlight and illustrate how teachers get pupils to move between different types of expression, such as graphs, model texts and glossaries.

Introducing the pupils to different scientific genres of expression

Scientific concepts are often difficult for pupils in general, and even more so for second-language learners. They may find that the concepts are a barrier to learning, and there may be good reason for teachers to draw attention to these concepts in the class and support the pupils’ ability to understand the concepts, despite what has just been said about the risk of impoverishing the classroom dialogue.

A particular category of concepts, which we have already touched upon, are those that have a different meaning in everyday speech. As a teacher, it is easy to overlook the fact that the scientific meaning of everyday concepts can be particularly difficult for second-language learners to get a handle on, and it may therefore mislead them.

As regards argumentation, it has been shown that it is important for the teaching to focus on both the actual construction of the argument, with a claim and supporting evidence, and on how the argument is communicated in the interaction with a counterparty.

The studies show that genre and content are closely linked in the integration of a specific genre and specific scientific content. The understanding of a concept varies in correlation with the ability to explain how the concept relates to other concepts, and how it can be defined and exemplified.

Using the results

The results of this systematic review are valuable in that they provide broad research-based knowledge of different strategies and working methods that can promote literacy and knowledge acquisition among the pupils. The review can thus constitute a basis for reflection on – and development of – individual teaching practices. Teachers who teach newly arrived pupils and other second-language learners can find examples of how they can use the entire spectrum of linguistic resources in the classroom, ranging from pupils’ first language and everyday experiences to the use of gestures, images, media and various visualisation methods in their teaching. There are also concrete examples of how the classroom interaction can be organised so that pupils can feel involved.

The teacher needs, in our opinion, to continually ask themselves the important didactic questions about when, how and why the different classroom resources are used, for which pupils and for how long. What can be considered as elements to promote literacy and knowledge acquisition for a newly arrived pupil in the beginning of a course can later on be perceived as stigmatising simplifications and signal low expectations, such as using their first language or visualisations and gestures. The teacher needs to be able to justify their choice of these resources, for example, that newly arrived pupils for a period of time need to use their first language or visualisations to deepen their understanding, motivate and increase involvement, or to legitimise their language and identities as useful in the classroom. However, if the teacher does not keep up with the pupils’ language development and does not have time to modify or adjust the classroom resources at the same pace as the pupils are developing their language skills, the same strategies can act as inhibitors and work against their purpose. The same applies to language focus or a unilateral focus on terms and concepts.

Selection of research

The literature searches were aimed at finding as much as possible of the research literature that can help shed light on our question. The searches resulted in 12,299 studies. After sifting out the studies that were not deemed to be relevant to the question and those studies that were not considered to be of sufficient quality, 24 studies remained, which constitute the scientific basis in this review. To obtain the most multifaceted picture possible of the phenomenon and the field of research, we chose to include research focusing on all types of working methods, ranging from specific teacher initiatives to complex teaching models. Nor have we confined ourselves to any particular study design. Two studies were conducted in Sweden. All the studies concern scientific content that is relevant to Swedish schools.

Many of the studies within second-language education are American and depict classrooms where all second-language learners speak the same first and second language, e.g. Spanish and English, and in some cases the pupils’ first language is also the teacher’s first or second language. The context is thus different from the teaching situation for Swedish teachers, who in many cases teach in a class where many different languages are spoken, languages that the teacher often does not know. However, we have seen that in these studies it is possible to identify teaching strategies and examples that are also interesting in a Swedish context.

The systematic review is available as summary, information sheet and full report (in Swedish).

Project group

The project is carried out by a project team consisting of external researchers (specialists in the field) and employees at the Institute.

External researchers

  • Britt Jakobson, associate professor, Department of Mathematics and Science Education, Stockholm University
  • Åsa Wedin, professor in educational work, Dalarna University

From the institute

  • Ida Envall, PhD, project manager
  • Farzaneh Moinian, PhD, project manager
  • Karolina Fredriksson, PhD, assistant project manager
  • Maria Bergman, project assistant
  • Sara Fundell
  • Anna Hedman
  • Aiko Nakano Hylander, PhD
  • Susanna Strömberg

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