Beware child friendly language

Subject specific language is a tricky one, we want children to be able to access learning easily, we don’t want them to be intimidated by ‘tricky’ words. However, is the quest to make things ‘child friendly’ sometimes causing more problems than it solves?

This afternoon I was working with first year BEd students on their first session on teaching Primary Science. We looked at investigations, and I re-introduced them to the idea of framing an investigation around variables. This is language that can be slightly intimidating to non specialists and those who were turned off by Science at school. However, the importance of specific language like this was brought home to me in this session when we explored the variables in an experiment.

When I was at Primary school these variables were introduced to me in ‘child friendly’ language. The independent variable became ‘what we will change’, the dependent ‘what we will measure’ and the controlled ‘what we will keep the same’. They all seem very friendly, and on the face of it more straightforward than the more technical terms above.

Looking to assess their understanding, I approached a group to ask them about their variables. I asked them ‘what are you measuring?’, looking to see if they had identified their dependent variable. Their response; ‘We are measuring the vinegar and the solid we are mixing it with to make sure they are the same  each time.‘.

Then I realised the flaw in my question, by oversimplifying the terms I had removed the specific nature of them. Had these been children we could have been half way down the road to a misconception about variables already, all because I had used so called ‘child friendly’ language to discuss scientific concepts.

It may seem more daunting to use specialist language with children, it may take less time for them to initially engage with a ‘kiddified’ version’, but we have precise language in disciplines for a reason. Beware over simplification; it might save time now, but it could be starting a journey towards confusion later…






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