1. Focus on literacy

Electricity is a topic about which there are many misconceptions. These are explained in Resource 1 . Students find it very difficult to visualise how electricity works. If they can be supported in constructing a reasonably accurate model in their heads, then as they move on to more demanding ideas such as ‘potential difference’ and ‘power’, they will have more chance of being successful in this topic. Linked to electricity is magnetism, which can also be problematic for students.

This theme draws heavily on the ideas in ‘Probing students’ understanding’. It is particularly important that for difficult topics with known misconceptions, you find ways of identifying what your students are thinking. Your students will probably have been taught some basic electricity at primary school – but you need to check what they know. A significant barrier to understanding the science can be the scientific words that students need to know, especially if they were taught in their own language. Activity 1 describes how you might support your students in understanding the key words associated with this topic. The teacher in Case study 1 had very little equipment and so had to manage with everyday objects.

Case study 1: Word cards

Mrs Immare is concerned that her Form 1 class is finding learning in English, challenging. It is made more difficult by the fact that she has very little equipment. Before she started the topic on electricity and magnetism, she worked with her colleague and they made a list of all the words that their students needed to understand. (Resource 2 has some suggestions.) Using an old cereal packet, the pair made a set of small cards. They wrote one of the key words on each of the cards and put them in a small box.

Mrs Immare gathered her class around the front of the class. She had arranged on the front desk some objects that use electricity – a torch, a mobile phone, and a radio. She also had some wire, two magnets and electrical components that she had taken from a broken radio. She used the objects to ask questions based on what she thought they should know already and to explain some of the key words. She drew a diagram on the board to show the electric circuit inside the torch.

Then she asked Ernest to pick a card and to read the word. She asked for volunteers to explain what it meant using the objects or diagram on the board. Loli got it right, so she picked the next card. As they got more confident she let the student who had picked the card nominate someone to explain the meaning. Everyone had to concentrate hard in case they were the ones that were picked.

Activity 1: Getting students to explain words

Before the activity, prepare a set of cards with some key words associated with the topic. Collect any equipment that you have on the front desk. Gather the students round the front and ask questions to find out what they already know about electricity and magnetism. Get the students to come and make a circuit and explain how to make the bulb light. Show them the attraction of two magnets and ask someone to make them repel each other.

When you have covered the main ideas, give the cards out, making sure that no one sees them. Each student who has a card has to come to the front and explain the meaning of the word – without using the word. The rest of the students have to guess what word they have. They can use the equipment or actions to help them explain the word.

Section 5 : Electricity and magnetism

2. Discussing key ideas in groups