Talking Chemistry when “Working Scientifically”

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The statutory programmes of study issued by the Department for Education in England provide the sequence of knowledge and concepts that children must be taught, this includes ‘Working Scientifically’ (WS). The purpose of WS is to learn how enquiry can be used to answer scientific questions; it should not be taught as a separate strand but, be interlaced with the learning of chemical knowledge and concepts. The table Key Stages 1 shows the development of WS skills from Key Stages 1 to 3, ages 5 to 14. (Reference

Clearly, there are many opportunities to develop these skills prior to GCSE, demonstrating the importance associated with their development. Why then, are vocabulary; units, symbols and nomenclature absent from the skills developed at Key Stage 2; surely a bike without wheels? In addition, the descriptors provided for this section fail to provide any indication of what vocabulary, units or simple scientific language should be introduced.

The acquisition of the language of Chemistry and, the precision and fluency with which it is applied both in oracy and literacy is a source of concern. Yet children as young as 5 are introduced to and confidently use terms such as graphene and alliteration; is it the expectation, rather than the ability to learn and apply words correctly, that holds students back? In this article, I will suggest vocabulary that should be used at a particular stage of the curriculum for exploring the chemical concepts through WS. I will not suggest activities or experiments as entering a term such as “materials” and selecting “primary” as the age range on will yield an array to choose between. I propose that we begin to employ the language of measurement (Reference and introduce terms such as fair test, control variables, categoric variables, data, evidence and conclusion, from the outset.

The chemistry content at Key Stage 1, requires that students are able: to distinguish between an object and the material from which it is made, identify and name a variety of everyday materials and describe the simple physical properties of these materials. I suggest that: asking questions; developing keys to classify materials; recording data in tables and bar charts would be more advantageous than trying to measure quantities such as; mass added before breaking into kilograms or mass of water absorbed in grams; don’t try to use units. Instead use terms such as; categoric variables, results, tables, bar charts and keys, when carrying out investigations to avoid confusing qualitative and quantitative data. The nature of materials can be described simply as rough/smooth; hard/soft: shiny/dull or in greater complexity; flexible/ridged; elastic (stretchy)/inelastic; transparent/opaque, here the focus should be speaking and listening rather than recording vocabulary.

Early Key Stage 2 introduces rocks, fossils and soil in Year 3. Physical properties are investigated again; materials, such as rock, can be compared and grouped together on the basis of their appearance and simple physical properties. Judgements of these properties are made; hardness describes how easy or difficult it is to scratch the mineral; shiny/dull are developed as lustre, a description of how the mineral surface looks when light reflects off it; cleavage and fracture are descriptions of how a mineral breaks into pieces; streak refers to the colour of a mineral when it is crushed to a powder. The variables remain categoric but, new terms; predictions, fair tests, and conclusions, are introduced. It makes sense to include these terms; control variables, so that a fair test can be explained in terms specific to the planned investigation; hazard and risk to encourage thinking about what could cause harm and how to reduce the risk by using eye protection when investigating cleavage and fracture; evaluation, provides the opportunity to reflect on what has been done and what needs to be done next. The term “evaluate” introduces the idea that investigations are cyclic in nature; an observation leads to a prediction, a “hypothesis” could be used, which is investigated and, from which data is generated and a conclusion is drawn, the investigation is evaluated to determine confidence in the outcome and further predictions can be made and so on.

The chemistry tackled in Year 4 represents a huge conceptual jump from, physical properties to states of matter, this marks the beginning of Chemistry’s departure from a purely macroscopic world; miscomprehensions ahoy! Measurement is now specified in the chemistry curriculum so introduce the terms scale, interval, and units when investigating the temperature (°C) at which state change occurs. Talk about a fair test, name the variables; independent, dependent and control variables. The thermometer offers the opportunity to discuss scale perhaps even resolution and precision, a line graph may be drawn from the continuous data generated and the evaluation can name measurement errors and suggest improvements related to intervals. Using these terms in discussion and written work will reinforce understanding and provide a basis from which investigations and their conclusions can be judged; the essence of working scientifically. If this vocabulary seems daunting remember the purpose at this age is familiarity, not mastery. I have found making concept cards, shown below, rather than vocabulary lists really helpful; if these are made as PowerPoint slides they can be easily referred to and altered for a specific experiment. Laminated cards work well in small groups but PowerPoint slides can be used with the whole class.

Chemistry concepts have been omitted from the year 6 programme of study, the opportunities discussed here refer to year 5 content which begins with materials. Now the list of properties has expanded to include solubility, transparency, conductivity (electrical and thermal), and response to magnets. The opportunity to plan and write up an experiment using technical language is offered by the statement, “Demonstrate that dissolving, mixing and changes of state are reversible changes.” I would suggest that there is a lot of important vocabulary linked with this work such as solution (solute/solvent), mixture, filtering, sieving, evaporating and reversible change, furthermore; the techniques should be used to illustrate that separation can be achieved by different means depending on the nature of the materials to be separated. Having introduced and reinforced scientific language through oracy now is the time to develop literacy in Chemistry.

Lastly, chemical changes such as burning and the action of acid on the bicarbonate of soda are introduced, offering the ideal opportunity to distinguish observation from inference. Begin to explore how to describe what is being observed; the description froths could become bubbles of gas are released; burning, which is a mystery to many, could become a reaction with oxygen which releases energy light and heat, distance burning from smoke. Why not write basic word equations to describe a chemical reaction that shows products forming reactants? Once again, depending upon the choice investigation, fair tests and variables can be highlighted; line graphs, bar charts and classification keys could be generated but most importantly the language of chemistry can be used both in discussion and in written work, developing understanding, confidence and familiarity.

Finally, I ask you to look ahead to how working scientifically develops at Key Stage 3, imagine how hard it would be to meet, understand and master without having first laid the groundwork in primary school as we’ve discussed. How can children be expected to work scientifically or ratify concepts without the words needed to express the chemistry?

This article originally appeared in the October 2016 edition of UKEdMagazine

Naomi Hennah @MrsHennah is a teacher of Science with a Chemistry specialism at Northampton School for Boys. Having taught for more than ten years Naomi is convinced that language is pivotal to successful science education “developing literacy and oracy skills empowers Students, deepens their understanding and raises attainment.” Naomi is a member of the Royal Society of Chemistry and is indebted to them for their support of schools and teachers.

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