Social semiotic approaches to language in science: A history of engagement with language and science

Introduction

Ask a random person walking by, ‘What does science learning look like?’ The responses may have some variation, but people are likely to mention words and phrases like ‘formulas’, ‘experiments’, and lab work that reflect ‘practical activity involving maximal doing and minimal reflecting activities’ like ‘writing’, ‘talking’, ‘reading’ about scientific understandings, phenomena, and inquiries, which are associated with ‘discourse and argument’.1 And, even less likely would the proverbial person on the street, when asked to describe science learning, mention the experience of interacting with images in science textbooks, trade, and other materials. Yet, so much of science teaching, learning, and the practice of science itself, involves the situated use of language and available resources2 to inquire into, evaluate, predict, and synthesize meanings about everyday observational science, established and accepted science, and everything in between, and beyond.

Meaning-making, through talk, text, and images in science, can be characterized through social semiotics. The semiotics of science considers how linguistic resources, alone, or combined with other resources, are used to represent scientific meaning. Halliday in his socio- semiotic theory of language identified two semiotic functions of language: semiotic resources and formations.3 Semiotic resources are vocabulary used to communicate sociocultural ways of understanding. While sometimes characterized as semantics, i.e., words and phrases, it might be more useful to think of semiotic resources as the ‘what’ of language, communicating concepts and ideas. Semiotic formations, on the other hand, are institutionalized ways of communicating through language. Think of semiotic formations as the ‘how’. In my southern United States upbringing, knowing how to communicate, particularly with non-family-members, was at least as important as what I said. Like many children of my generation, I was taught to wait my communicative turn, and then when acknowledged to say, ‘Excuse me’, to offer reasons for most requests in a clear, step-by-step fashion, and to speak in complete sentences. So, too, are there semiotic formations in the disciplinary practice of science, just as with teaching and learning to make meaning with and of science. Semiotic fonnations can be seen as the canonical tools, representations, and descriptions of scientific processes and phenomena. Inquiry into classroom science semiotic resources and formations examines how meaning is made as students and teachers build understandings. Semiotic resources in science also represent how, and what understandings are shared.

Much of K-16 science learning involves the use of semiotic fonnations and resources. Textbooks are replete with figures, charts, and images. Science laboratory journals involve jottings, sketches, summaries, and other written representations to report procedures and outcomes. Children are encouraged to develop concept maps, Cornell notes, annotations4 to document and discuss, with peers, their predictions and rationales, and to consider alternative explanations and hypotheses. Indeed, as Kress has asserted, ‘classrooms are semiotic spaces’ where meaning-making is multimodal.5 Amid this stew of words, symbols, illustrations, and talk and the writing around all of these resources and formation, in the current NGSS landscape K-12 students are expected to leam to engage in close reading of science texts, make claims, and construct effective arguments to support claims. Students are expected to construct models and make predictions, choose and implement procedures to engage in inquiry, and to solve problems. NGSS, in short, conveys an expectation of increasing use of language, in science.

This focus on the role of language—coupled to the differing experiences that children have, in and out of schooling, with academic discourse, and in communicating their everyday understandings about science—in classrooms, is presenting demands that children are often ill-prepared for, and teachers may not have the training to offer support. To build science understandings, and communicate what they know, learners must have an awareness of how integral text and discourse are to the scientific process. From journals, to trade books, to periodicals such as Scientific American, texts are the most public and persistent manifestation of the nature and practice of science.6 Texts embody the analysis, critique, and general advances of the discipline. To grapple with text content (including images, charts, etc. embedded within texts), to relate content to previous classroom science understandings, and to out-of-school experiences, students need tools for communicating what they do, and don’t understand, and the ways and forms of these understandings. Gaining content knowledge, learning to ‘do science’, and communicating about science with teachers and peers, involves social semiotics.

In this chapter, I briefly consider the theoretical and analytic foundations of semiotic study of science classroom language. I trace its application in analytic efforts to study teaching and learning in science, and I offer examples from recent empirical efforts that leverage social semiotic fonnations and resources. The chapter concludes by considering the implications of this work for new directions in the field of social semiotics in science.

 
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