I vividly remember the first scientific article I read. It was absolutely bewildering. I tried highlighting, summarising, re-phrasing – I still could not seem to understand what the authors had done, why they did it and what conclusions they came to. My peers were in the same boat, struggling through storm waves of incomprehension. We were completely unprepared for this type of text. My M.Ed research also indicated that students still struggle with scientific texts, particularly scientific articles. This is not surprising, given that scientific texts are unique in several ways.
Features of scientific texts
Scientific texts differ from narrative texts or even other informational texts.
Firstly, scientific texts have a notoriously high level of lexical density. This simply means that there is a lot of content crammed into fewer clauses, sentences and paragraphs. Scientific texts also make use of nominalisation, which in itself increases lexical density.
Nominalisation involves turning verbs into nouns, implying an impartial distance while compressing information. For example, ‘Germany invaded Poland in 1939. This was the immediate cause of the Second World War breaking out’ becomes ‘Germany’s invasion of Poland was the immediate cause of the outbreak of the Second World War’.
Perhaps the most difficult of all to overcome is the demand for local inferencing. For example, ‘The wire thickness was measured using Vernier callipers, three times over the length of the wire, and the average obtained. These are accurate to within 0.001 millimetres.’ The inference required is the understanding that ‘these’ refers to the Vernier callipers. While this example is not especially complex, some scientific articles require inferencing across not just a sentence or two, but up to 30 lines.
Finally, scientific texts are demanding in terms of conceptual content. It is not that other domains don’t require conceptual engagement, but some science content can seem counter-intuitive and therefore readers have misconceptions that need to be overcome.
Several researchers have observed that reading instruction is almost absent from secondary schools, except for generic instruction for struggling readers. Additionally, much of the research that has been done on literacy in secondary schools has been within language classrooms. It is vital to situate reading in science within science classrooms, rather than adapting generic literacy instruction. It is this area or gap in research that my PhD aims to tackle.