Using Technology to Support Struggling Students: Science Literacy, Vocabulary and Discourse

By: National Center for Technology Innovation
To be scientifically literate, students must be able to express themselves appropriately. Learn how to help struggling students master specific vocabulary and be able to use it in their science writing activities.

In an increasingly complex world, all students need to be scientifically literate. While some students may go on to pursue advanced careers in the sciences, basic scientific literacy is critical for all students. All students need to understand what it means to think like a scientist, and how to evaluate information that is called "scientific". Many of the careers of the future will require that students have the ability to collaborate and solve problems using STEM skills. Struggling students are no exception — they will need the same types of knowledge and skills, and will often require additional supports to be successful.

Research has shown that the most meaningful learning happens when students are engaged in authentic activities that ask them to think and behave like chemists, computer programmers, mathematicians, engineers or archeologists — that is, when they are engaged in activities that mirror the real-life tasks of STEM professionals. [i] These activities might include the use of virtual environments and simulations, developing models of scientific phenomena, and using collaborative tools like email, video conferencing, and classroom wikis. These types of activities can present new challenges for struggling students and students with disabilities. In this series of science info briefs, Using Technology to Support Struggling Students in Science, we'll examine five different dimensions of science learning, the areas that may be challenging for struggling students, and how technology tools may help.

Science literacy, vocabulary and discourse

To be scientifically literate, students must be able to express themselves appropriately. They need to master specific vocabulary and be able to use it in their science writing activities (journals, lab reports, etc.). [ii] These skills can be especially challenging for students from different cultures and linguistic backgrounds, or to those with cognitive and/or language-based challenges.

Struggling students can benefit from focused attention on their background knowledge and vocabulary as part of instruction [iii]. As students move from more general science courses to more in-depth and content-heavy courses, the knowledge and vocabulary required in order to access required readings and activities become even more critical. This is especially true for students who are English language learners, even if their spoken English is proficient [iv]. Without a strong understanding of concepts and specific content vocabulary, reading and comprehending challenging science texts are difficult for anyone, but can be nearly impossible for struggling learners.

Both mainstream and assistive technologies can be used in strategies for teaching struggling students:

  • Electronic references
  • Multimedia to target background knowledge
  • Scientific discourse scaffolds

Electronic references

Glossaries, electronic dictionaries, thesauruses, translation sites, videos, and other online references give students opportunities to practice using language in authentic ways. These types of resources are the first level of support for building scientific language and vocabulary. They provide students with a way to access more information about a specific term and to be more independent in their reading of content area texts.

Multimedia to target background knowledge

Teachers can boost student background knowledge, which may be lacking for some struggling students. Interactive websites, encyclopedias, and other free and commercial websites give students opportunities to engage with science content in engaging and varied ways. Multimedia tools can also allow for repeated viewings of a video, animation, or slide show, allowing students to return to the content multiple times and build mastery.

Scientific discourse scaffolds

Discourse scaffolds can provide students with a second level of support in building scientific knowledge and vocabulary. Rather than focusing on individual terms or phrases, students are examining explanations, paragraphs, and longer documents. For example, students can use concept-mapping software to help them visualize the structure of science discourse. Writing templates can be used or created by the teacher to illustrate the general structures that students are expected to use for their writing (such as a lab report). Writing prompts for scientific arguments (i.e. I hypothesized that …, I observed that …, my data shows that …), can help students get started with writing while illustrating the correct format. These approaches may help support students who have weak literacy skills, or who are unfamiliar with formal and scientific uses of language.

Implications for educators

There are several options, including technology, for teachers to support and accommodate all students, especially those for whom the language of science is a challenge:

  • Pre-teach vocabulary and ensure that students understand nuanced meanings, which can improve students' comprehension.
  • Use technologies that can strengthen students' background knowledge and vocabulary proficiency.
  • Make the expectations of science discourse explicit and let students know that part of succeeding in science both on tests and in life is using the proper language in scientifically appropriate ways.
  • Develop exercises that will help students strengthen their use of scientific discourse, including modeling correct oral and written expressions.
  • Search the TechMatrix for tools that support scientific discourse and have both the first level of support, such as glossaries, and the second level of discourse scaffolds.
  • Consider incorporating the resources listed below into your science curriculum.

Technology resources

Adaptive Curriculum
This interactive visualization and simulation software for middle and high school science features many different activities and simulations linked to national science standards. It also features virtual labs, simulations, quizzes, built-in glossaries, lesson plans and other classroom materials.

Build background knowledge and help students engage with curriculum through the use of the videos, photography and other resources from ARKive, a collection of multimedia materials on endangered species. Games, classroom resources, and lesson plans are available.

ARKive Magnetic Fridge Poetry Game
Encourage your students to play with science vocabulary to create fun poems about wildlife using the Magnetic Fridge Poetry Game.

Subscription-based online science and technology reference materials which includes encyclopedia articles, videos, multimedia, definitions, and educator resources.

The Periodic Table of Videos
Scientists at the University of Nottingham have created a number of fun and engaging videos on various topics in chemistry, including videos illustrating each of the 118 chemical elements on the periodic table. Many of the videos are closed captioned and available with subtitles in a variety of languages.


Click the "References" link above to hide these references.

[i] Herrington, J., & Kervin, L. (2007). Authentic learning supported by technology: Ten suggestions and cases of integration in classrooms. Educational Media International, 44(3), 219-236.; Tan, S. C., Yeo, A. C. J., & Lim, W. Y. (2005). Changing epistemology of science learning through inquiry with computer-supported collaborative learning. Journal of Computers in Mathematics and Science Teaching, 24(4), 367-386.

[ii] Anderson, C., Holland, D., & Palincsar, A. S. (1997). Canonical and sociocultural approaches to research and reform in science education: The story of Juan and his group. The Elementary School Journal, 97(4), 360-383; Lemke, J. (1990). Talking science: Language, learning, and values. Stamford CT: Ablex.; Moje, E., Cllazo, T., Carillo, R., & Marx, A. R. (2000). "Maestro, what is quality?":Language, literacy, and discourse in project based science. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 38(4), 469-498.; National Research Council. (2000). Inquiry and the National Science Education

Standards: A guide for teaching and learning. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.; Smith, D., & Anderson, C. (1999). Appropriating scientific practices and discourses with future elementary teachers. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 36(7), 755-776.; Tobin, K., Elmesky, R., & Carambo, C. (2002). Learning environments in urban science classrooms: Contradictions, conflict and the reproduction of social inequality. In S. W. Goh & M. S. Khine (Eds.), Studies in educational learning environment: An international perspective (pp. 101-129). Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Co.

[iii] Heller, R., & Greenleaf, C. (2008). Literacy instruction in the content areas: Getting to the core of middle and high school improvement. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education.

[iv] Short, D. J., & Fitzsimmons, S. (2006). Double the work: Challenges and solutions to acquiring language and academic literacy for adolescent English language learners ( A report to the Carnegie Corporation of New York). Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education.

National Center for Technology Innovation (2010)


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