Ever noticed how much serious reading comprehension a physics test requires? Especially when a well-written test checks for nuanced conceptual understanding, prompts and answer choices must necessarily use complex verbiage.
Whenever an English department gets its knickers in a twist about "reading and writing across the curriculum," I feel the words leaping to escape my vocal cavity: "Have you ever read a physics test? Do you realize the level of vocabulary, the verbal sophistication required to make sense of, let alone to correctly answer, a physics question? Do you know how much writing instruction and practice must go on in my class, so that on a test students can condense broad physics ideas into a two-sentence justification, and do so in just a couple of minutes? And on a related note, just how much are physics concepts taught or reinforced in the canonical high school English curriculum? In studying Lord of the Flies, do you discuss how Piggy is nearsighted, thus the concave lenses in his glasses wouldn't converge parallel light rays, and thus couldn't possibly start a fire? Or do you dismiss the glaring physics error as "just a metaphor?"
Burrito Girl, my wife and sidekick and English major, reminds me that at least teachers in her discipline rarely pluralize with apostrophes. Thank you.
The point is, whether we even know we're doing it, physics teachers are teaching reading comprehension. The weaker readers in our class, and the non-native speakers, are at a tremendous disadvantage in learning physics. What can we do to promote physics understanding, and success on physics tests, for those who might be doing A-okay internalizing physics but are struggling with the words?
I had some interesting conversations with teachers at my last couple of institutes about this very subject. Staci Babykin, of Montverde school near Orlando, in particular gave me some insights. I teach a few students every year who arrive from Asia with book knowledge, but not practical knowledge, of English; Staci teaches far more students in this category, and her students are far less fluent than mine. Yet she's been extraordinarily successful in developing her students' physics (and English) skills.
Below are some of my suggestions, which freely and unabashedly borrow from discussions with Staci and others:
(1) Don't write many of your own problems from scratch. Instead, use previously published resources from textbooks and standardized tests. In addition to the wealth of on-level material available, an advantage to using AP, SAT II, or Regents questions is that professionals have already vetted the language for consistency, clarity, simplicity. I know that I have a tendency to be overly colloquial in my own writing, or to use references that a non-acculturated student might not understand. That's okay once in a while, as for a classroom demonstration where nonverbal cues are abundant. But homework problems should prepare students for tests, which should prepare students for a cumulative exam, which should be written clearly, simply, and succinctly.*
* Unlike this blog post, for example.
(2) Model how to communicate with mathematics. A justification that says merely "Voltage is doubled due to Ohm's law" is not a justification at all. I work hard with students to say something more like "By definition, the current I through series resistors is the same through each. In Ohm's law, the R term is in the numerator, and not raised to a power. So a doubled resistance with constant current mathematically gives a doubled voltage."
I ask native speakers to use words of explanation, because generally they can express their thoughts in words better than in equations. The symbols of mathematics, even in basic algebraic equations like Ohm's law, are a language in themselves. Most high school students must "translate" in their minds from words to symbols, because they are not fluent in algebra.
But non-native speakers, at least the ones I teach, are generally far more fluent in algebra than in English. I teach them not to use words, but to use symbols: put a line over the I to indicate it doesn't change, or just write the word "constant" and circle the I. Then draw an up-arrow by the R and the V to show how they are related. Or circle the R and V and write a little "x2" by each.
By the end of the course, I would love it if my native speakers became comfortable with symbolic communication; and I would also love it if my non-native speakers began writing grammatical sentences expressing their understanding. Just recognize that the combination of language and math skills might cause students to communicate differently.
(3) Figure out what "obvious" vocabulary needs explanation. I do not give vocabulary quizzes. Words that are generally new to everyone, like "adiabatic," are defined, and then learned through use in context. Specialized vocabulary is not generally a problem for non-native speakers, because teachers and books are careful about communicating the definition and use.
It's the words that we might never think of as problems that trip up the non-native speakers. Staci related the day she brainstormed with a group of students about all the words that, on a physics test, might as well be synonyms for "string": rope, cord, light string, cable, line, fishing line...
Or try "table": surface, bench, desk, tabletop, hard surface, lab bench...
It is a skill, one that we can teach, for students to recognize commonly used words in physics questions; or, to guess in context what such words must mean.
Got more ideas? Stick 'em in the comment's. :-)