1. Focus on language

Classroom teachers often resort to teaching science with talk in the mother tongue and writing and testing in the target language, such as Arabic, Kiswahili, English or French. Yet much valuable language learning can take place in science lessons because the language to be learned is ‘linked to action’.

This is the focus of Case Study 1. Even the action of ‘pointing out’ something in a short demonstration can help you assess pupils’ learning. What pupils say, as they point out something, reveals what they know. You follow this up in Activity 1 with a series of investigations in which the emphasis is on careful observations and deductions – what do pupils’ observations tell them about the nature of air? Encourage the use of lots of different descriptive words; this is an ideal time to reinforce language learning.

Case Study 1: ‘Ndiyakumsha’ – I have mastered it

Many teachers of younger pupils do not believe you can teach a whole science lesson through the medium of English. ‘The children will be lost,’ they say. At a recent workshop in South Africa, the co-presenter, Lawrence Manzezulu, challenged them to try.

We planned a lesson together (see Resource 1: An introductory ‘air’ lesson for a detailed lesson plan) with many opportunities where talk and thought could be linked to action. Nervously, a teacher volunteered to do the teaching, starting by explaining that she would only be speaking English – but pupils would be free to talk in whatever language they needed at the time.

She ended the lesson by asking what they had learned, and one pupil said (supporting his use of English with gesture) ‘We have learned, M’am, that air is up, down, in, out, all about.’ (That was an unforgettable teaching moment.) And the teacher said her first Xhosa word – ‘ndiyakumsha!’ (‘I have mastered it!’ in English.)

Activity 1: Air around us

Take a soccer ball (or other ball) and tell your pupils it represents the Earth. Hold it out in your left hand and move your right pointing finger slowly towards it from a distance as if it were a spaceship coming back to Earth. Tell pupils to raise their hands when they think the spaceship has reached the air. (Note when the hands go up.) Stop when you are a few millimeters from the surface of the ball. Tell them, ‘Here! Here is where the air starts.’ Did any pupils think or know that?

Now ask pairs of pupils to work through the small experiments in Resource 2: Air experiments to find out more about the air around them.

Ask pupils to record what they have found out about air:

  • what it is like;
  • how they know it is there;
  • how it is different from water.

Are you surprised by their ideas? Listening to their ideas and observations gives you an opportunity to assess their understanding of what air is and how it behaves.

Section 4: Investigating air

2. Exploring the properties of air