How climate change is framed for middle school students in science textbooks

Diego Román, an assistant professor in teaching and learning at SMU, has recently researched how climate change is framed for middle school students in science textbooks.

By Cassandra Pollock

With each issue, Tasbo+Edu brings you an interview with experts on issues related to health care. Here is this week’s subject:

Diego Román is an assistant professor in teaching and learning at Southern Methodist University. He has recently researched how climate change is framed for middle school students in science textbooks.

Tasbo+Edu: Can you briefly explain your research findings?  

Dr. Diego Román: The big picture of my research is that I look at the linguistic and social factors that impact language use in the science-education context and language development for English learners who are attending school in the U.S.

I am an applied linguist, and one of my research topics was the framing of climate change in middle school textbooks. In terms of the science textbooks and what we found in that specific study, the ones we investigated don't reflect the way scientists discuss climate change in reports. While science reports resort to the certainty that climate change is happening, the textbooks that we looked at were very uncertain about defining that issue. We looked into seeing why that would be the case, particularly at how science is seen as very specific, objective and certain, but when we discuss climate change, we use a lot of qualifiers — “would,” “could” and “might.”

We’re arguing that this places the weight on the reader to decipher what that means. “Not all” could mean 90 percent, 55 percent or 10 percent, depending on who you’re talking to. So while textbooks are required to address certain topics — such as climate change — they’re not using specific language to help students and teachers have a better understanding and discussion around the issue.

I also look at how we use language — and I do that by using a framework called systemic functional linguistics. It argues that language is caused by the context of use, so the way we talk about science and the way we frame science topics when discussing them may be different than social studies. To explain a different type of knowledge, we connect ideas differently. For example, we emphasize the idea versus the people in science, but in social studies, we look at the people. To do that, we use language. So I look at how language is used in those purposes to convey knowledge and be effective. I try to understand the perspectives of the authors or the people. That’s a big picture description of my research.

Tasbo+Edu: What are the biggest challenges you see moving forward to try to modify the textbook system?

Román: It seems to be how research can impact, in this case, textbook development, and how to find things that applied linguists are doing when it relates to how language is used and if there’s a way to convey scientific knowledge — from a contextual perspective, but also from a linguistics perspective.

For example, one of the things we tend to think is that short sentences are easier for us to understand. We know that it’s not only about a short sentence, but how the different ideas are connected. Sometimes textbooks say, “I am hungry. I want to eat,” rather than, “I am hungry, therefore I want to eat,” to lower the readability level. But the latter is more meaningful and comprehensible from a linguistics perspective.

We know those things, but by textbook companies focusing on lowering the readability level, we lose the meaning sometimes of specific paragraphs or texts.

One of the challenges is that even though we know all these things about text, reading comprehension and framing of scientific issues — that’s not incorporated into how science textbooks are designed. So addressing the language behind how these topics — especially around the environment — are discussed is big, and also how research findings can influence the development of text to accurately reflect what we know about science and these social scientific factors.

Tasbo+Edu: What are your plans with your research down the road? What’s your vision?

Román: I just wrote a grant trying to address how we can prepare teachers to have meaningful social scientific topics in discussions of science. We cannot ignore that climate change discussions have a social component; it’s not enough to just address the science behind it — people have opinions about it and there’s a controversy surrounding it. 

I want to understand how to better support teachers in discussing social scientific issues that require a lot of language support.