Taking your first steps into higher education
Taking your first steps into higher education

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Taking your first steps into higher education

2.1 Reading text

In the STM subjects, words have very precise meanings, so you will encounter terms that may be unfamiliar at first. The following activity will help you to tackle complex and unfamiliar text.

Activity 2 Reading text

Timing: Allow approximately 30 minutes

The three examples of text in this activity come from three different sources: Example 1 is from a popular science magazine, Example 2 is from a student textbook for a module of a higher level than this course and Example 3 is from a book intended for the general reader. Note that a billion is a thousand million, and a million is a thousand thousand. These three texts are probably more complicated than anything else in this week, so the comment afterwards will give you some advice about how to interpret them. After this activity, the rest of the week should be less daunting. You don’t need to remember the information in these examples – what matters more is how you approach the reading.

Read each of the three articles, then in your learning notebook:

  • list them in order from easiest to understand to hardest to understand, writing down why you put them in this order (which may be related to the terminology used, the numbers included, or some other reason)
  • identify which one you think is the most scientific
  • write down a few words – no more than a couple of sentences – summarising what each one was about.

Example 1

Geologists can trace the history of the Earth back about 4.6 billion years, to its formation from a ring of gas and dust around the young Sun. They divide this vast span into intervals that form the basic yardsticks of geological time. Early geologists named these intervals on the basis of the rocks formed within them but without knowing how long they lasted. Succeeding generations have changed the names of some and calibrated them in years to produce a geological time scale – a means of measuring the history of the Earth.

(Hecht, 1995)

Example 2

One of the most important events in the history of life began about 545 million years ago, i.e. some four billion years after the origin of the Earth. The term Cambrian explosion reflects a sudden burst of evolution, when a wide variety of organisms, especially those with hard, mineralised parts, first appear in the fossil record. Thus began the Phanerozoic Eon – ‘the time of visible life’. Very small (1–2 mm) shelly fossils appeared in the earliest part of the Cambrian Period – assorted shapes such as tubes and cones (that presumably enclosed soft tissue), as well as spines, scales and knobs. It’s often difficult to tell, however, whether a fossil is the complete skeleton of a single organism or an isolated part of some larger creature.

(The Open University, 2013)

Example 3

Throughout its 15 billion years, the pace of the Universe’s development has been accelerating, each new wave of innovation building up to trigger the next, in a series of ‘leaps’ to further levels of change and diversification. Compress this unimaginable timescale into a single 24-hour day, and the Big Bang is over in less than a ten-billionth of a second. Stable atoms form in about four seconds but not for several hours, until early dawn, do stars and galaxies form. Our own solar system must wait for early evening, around 6 p.m. Life on Earth begins around 8 p.m., the first vertebrates crawl on to land at about 10.30 p.m. at night. Dinosaurs roam from 11.35 p.m. until four minutes before midnight. Our ancestors first walk upright with 10 seconds to go. The Industrial Revolution, together with our modern age, occupies less than the last thousandth of a second. Yet, in this fraction of time, the face of this planet has changed almost as much as at any but the most tumultuous times in the prehistoric past.

(Myers and Kent, 2005, p. 12)

Comment

Here is what some students said about these articles:

  • I haven’t studied science before, so some of the words had me puzzled – I’m not sure I could even pronounce Phanerozoic. All the examples talk about the age of the Earth, and how long ago life started. Overall, I think Example 2 is the most difficult, but then, it did say that this was from a higher-level textbook. I had to read that one several times – I hope the rest of the book is easier! I think Example 2 was the most scientific, then Example 1, then Example 3. I underlined some of the words, so I could work out what made sense.

  • Some of the words were new to me, but the confusing part was sorting out all the numbers – billions of this and millions of that. I drew a sort of clock for the last example, so I could see how all the numbers fitted together.

  • I’ve done some science before, so I wanted to check that the three examples made sense together. They all refer to the age of the Earth as 4.6 billion years, but you need to think about the different ways the numbers are presented. I didn’t think Example 3 was very scientific – although it included terms such as ‘Big Bang’.

  • I found the language quite hard to follow – there were lots of long and confusing words within vital bits of information that you needed. I found it took up a lot of time. However, the extracts of texts from books were very useful and helpful.

Your response is likely to differ from all of these, although there may be some similarities.

One way of helping you to understand scientific writing is to underline the words or phrases which you think are most important and which summarise the content and meaning of the text. These are often referred to as key words.

Identifying key words is not an exact science. Different people may have a different sense of what is important in a text, perhaps because of their familiarity with the subject area or the reason they are reading the text in the first place. However, there will always be a number of key words which most people can agree are central to understanding the text and what it is about.

Activity 3 Identifying keywords

Timing: Allow approximately 10 minutes

Reread Example 1 from Activity 2 and try to identify the key words or phrases in the text. I have identified a total of twelve.

Geologists can trace the history of the Earth back about 4.6 billion years, to its formation from a ring of gas and dust around the young Sun. They divide this vast span into intervals that form the basic yardsticks of geological time. Early geologists named these intervals on the basis of the rocks formed within them but without knowing how long they lasted. Succeeding generations have changed the names of some and calibrated them in years to produce a geological time scale – a means of measuring the history of the Earth.

(Hecht, 1995)

Comment

Here are my key words from the text:

Geologists can trace the history of the Earth back about 4.6 billion years, to its formation from a ring of gas and dust around the young Sun. They divide this vast span into intervals that form the basic yardsticks of geological time. Early geologists named these intervals on the basis of the rocks formed within them but without knowing how long they lasted. Succeeding generations have changed the names of some and calibrated them in years to produce a geological time scale – a means of measuring the history of the Earth.

Did you identify the same key words? How far do you agree with my selection of key words?

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