Ann Marie Farrell and Michael Seery consider how to meet students’ language and literacy needs within chemistry

Every class is made up of a diversity of learners within which will be some students who have a particular difficulty accessing the subject. Students may have a general learning disability, including language and literacy skills acquisition, or may have specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia. Autism, visual and hearing impairment can also lead to difficulty with the language and literacy of a subject. Some students may not have a diagnosed special educational need but may have literacy difficulties that impact on their learning. While language and literacy difficulties may manifest themselves for a variety of reasons, the implications for teaching and learning may be quite similar and need to be addressed to allow access to the chemistry curriculum for all.

The focus of this article is on meeting students’ language and literacy needs within chemistry, with the aim of examining factors that may impact on teaching and learning. It considers some approaches that can be used, guided by the general approach of universal design for learning (UDL).

Oral language and communication


Source: iStock

Oral language and communication relate to the spoken word and there is a range of associated terms, for example grammar, linguistics, pragmatics, semantics and turn-taking. These terms and concepts can be collapsed into three key components: form, content and use (box 1).

The components of oral language and communication and the difficulties arising need to be considered both in terms of receptive and expressive language. In other words, we need to think about the nature of the language demands we are placing on students when we ask them to speak and when we ask them to listen to others speak. This is particularly true in a subject like chemistry where the language is laden with a specific vocabulary and has particular expectations in terms of language use, for example predicting possible outcomes to experiments supported by rationale and explaining potentially complicated and unfamiliar processes.

Box 1: Form, content and use

Form has to do with linguistic structure and relates to sentence formation, grammar and sound production. Potential difficulties experienced by students include articulation or distinguishing words that sound alike. A simple example is the suffixes notating functional groups in organic chemistry: alkane, alkene, alkyne. Furthermore, students may have difficulty structuring sentences coherently.

Content has to do with the semantics – what the words mean in a sentence. For example, there is significant interest in distinguishing between heat and temperature. In this case, these are two words that have a vaguer use in everyday language, whereas their meaning in science is more specific. On the other hand, a word such as nucleus will mean different things depending on whether the student is studying chemistry or biology.

Finally, use deals with pragmatics – how students use language in dialogue for different functions, taking the needs of the listener into consideration, eg to describe, predict, explain, recall, retell, report, instruct, sequence and so on.


Arguably, as students progress through their academic journey, their reliance on textbooks increases and certain assumptions are made in relation to the core literacy skills they have already acquired. Much formal assessment is literacy-based: students are required to read exam papers, and write answers and essays. Sometimes teachers assume that if the student can read the text they will understand the concepts therein; however, this is not always the case. Neither can it be assumed older students have the pre-requisite skills to read and decode new words. This is an important consideration in chemistry where some unusual or irregular letter combinations may be found (eg phenolphthalein). As with oral language and communication, it is important teachers understand the components of literacy to ensure they consider all the potential difficulties students may experience.

Light coming out of a book

Source: iStock

Literacy breaks down into two key components – reading and writing. Within each component, there are a number of skills required when engaging in literacy-based tasks. For reading, students need to use word identification skills and strategies to attack new words; demonstrate comprehension of text by identifying the main idea, explaining a concept, answering literal and inferential questions; and fluency when reading, using tone, pace, modulation and observing punctuation. Writing comprises spelling, constructing sentences and paragraphs, handwriting, flow of thought, understanding the demands of a range of genres of writing tasks and managing the amount of writing expected depending on the nature of the literacy task.

It is important to think about oral language and literacy separately in the first instance so the components of each are visible and understood. However, it is also important to acknowledge they are inextricably interlinked. They both refer to language, receptive and expressive. When students read or listen to another person speak, they are using their receptive language skills. When they speak or write, they are engaging their expressive language skills. For most students (and for most people generally), expressive language places higher demands than receptive language. However, this is not always the case. Students on the autism spectrum may be very articulate and express themselves clearly but may have difficulty following another’s talk, following instructions, maintaining a conversation and talking about topics outside their own specific interests.

In general, it is important to focus initially on oral language before moving to the written word. If students have difficulty using language orally to explain, describe, and predict, it is likely they will have difficulty writing explanations, descriptions, and experiments. It is important that key words and concepts are talked about and discussed to make sure students have the requisite vocabulary for the topic before they are required to read or write using that vocabulary.

Implications for planning, teaching and learning

The issues outlined here require teachers to reflect on how they design the teaching/learning context. UDL provides a framework whereby the various elements of a curriculum are aligned (learning outcomes/goals, teaching methods, materials, tasks, assignment assessment). This provides a range of choices and representation, taking into consideration diversity of learning styles and approaches of a group of learners.2

We think because we have words, not the other way around. The more words we have, the better able we are to think conceptually (Madeleine L’Engle)

Three basic principles underpin UDL. First is the provision of multiple means of representation to present what we are teaching to support recognition learning. Second, the provision of multiple means of expression to support students’ strategic learning in terms of how they express that learning. Finally, the provision of multiple means of engagement to maximise motivation so students can make sense of the concepts and understand why they are important and relevant.3

Work on the UDL approach has shown that addressing all learners’ needs from the outset in the design of our materials benefits all learners, not just those for whom a diverse approach was first considered. Sometimes, in that context, UDL can be seen as being diametrically opposed to the concept of differentiation because the latter is perceived as beginning with core curriculum content appropriate for most, which is retrospectively adapted and amended to take learners with specific needs into consideration. That, and the fact that the UDL approach places a heavy emphasis on provision of choice, certainly indicates a difference in philosophy between the UDL and differentiation approaches. However, once the focus moves to planning, teaching and learning, many of the practical approaches and strategies overlap.

Practical strategies

The following teaching strategies could be considered when planning and teaching in order to address potential difficulties.

Provide an overview of lessons for students to navigate the learning context. If there are other adults assisting with lessons, it is important they know where the lesson is going, to maximise the effectiveness of their support. Teachers may cue students orally or, preferably, using written or visual cues. Assessment for learning strategies such as WALT (we are learning to … [learning intention]) and WILF (what I’m looking for … [success criteria]) are useful in this context.


Source: iStock

In the early stages of teaching a new topic, relying heavily on the written word creates a barrier to the subject for some students. This is not to say written language cannot be used at all; rather it should not be relied upon to introduce complex ideas in the first instance. When you do move to using written material, consider the reading and writing demands therein. It is useful to identify key words and phrases that carry the key concepts and to pre-teach that vocabulary.4

Provide an opportunity for students to make links between what they already know about a topic and new information gleaned from the lesson. For students with learning difficulties, making such links may not be automatic. Providing a context in which prior knowledge can be activated allows for content-specific vocabulary to be identified, taught and reinforced. Pose a problem through which key elements of a threshold concept may be explored, allowing students to identify what they know and what they need to learn. Teach the key words necessary to access the topic and in doing so, provide a point of reference (eg word list, chemistry dictionary) that might be used later by the students to reinforce their learning and/or to scaffold more complex literacy-based tasks.5

When posed with a reading task in chemistry, students need to be able to read for meaning. While most students have developed strategies to do this, some will need the task to be scaffolded so they can grasp the key concepts described. There are comprehension strategies students may use when reading, such as PQRS (preview, question, read, summarise) and SQ3R (survey, question, read, review, recall).1 Generally, these strategies will have to be explicitly taught.6

Tasks that require students to write demand expressive language skills. Usually, in a chemistry context, these tasks provide students with an opportunity to demonstrate their understanding in an assessment. Consider the writing genres in common use in your chemistry class. Identify the genre demanded in a given task. Provide students with a choice of written task and points of reference, for example a list of key vocabulary.

Modelling takes demonstration a step beyond showing students how to do something; it requires the teacher to step into the shoes of the students when approaching a problem-solving scenario. The language inherent in the students’ task can be modelled by the teacher using a comparable context.7

A final word

Considering the language and literacy inherent in chemistry is important because the language carries the concepts we wish our students to understand and apply to a range of situations. This consideration enables our teaching of chemistry to be accessible to a much more diverse range of learners.

Ann Marie Farrell is a lecturer in the school of inclusive and special education at Dublin City University, Ireland. Michael Seery is a reader in chemistry education at the University of Edinburgh, UK