Changing attitudes to science in pupils with EAL: How does outdoor learning influence attitudes to scientific enquiry?

The EAL Journal blog publishes plain language summaries of EAL-related Masters and Doctoral research. In this post Mark Hainsworth, Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of Chester, presents a summary of his Masters research into the effects of taking the science classroom outside on EAL learners’ attitudes to the subject.

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MHainsworth PHOTO

Mark Hainsworth

Background: Why did I do this research?

Pupils with English as an Additional Language (EAL) can be at a disadvantage when learning science due to the specialist kind of vocabulary used, one which is essential to the understanding of the concepts involved and to the ‘doing’ of science; also known as the process skills of scientific enquiry. Because these skills are often very abstract, especially when studied in the confines of a classroom, they can hold particular challenges for EAL learners. At the time of this study, I taught in a mainstream primary school with a very high percentage of Pakistani heritage pupils. My class of Year 5 pupils (9-10 year olds) were first language Punjabi speakers who found learning science concepts particularly difficult and consequently held negative attitudes towards the subject. I believed that their negative attitudes to science were related specifically to issues around how the abstract language of science is contextualised.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs the school’s science lead, ensuring that all pupils enjoyed learning science and are given the opportunity to make good progress in the subject is a key priority. In recent years, I had made important changes to the school’s science curriculum and now wanted to focus on developing teaching methods that would impact positively on the learning of all our pupils.

Research suggests that contextualising learning for EAL pupils (framing it in a way that can be easily understood) helps them to make sense of new information and language. For example, one of the topics covered in our science curriculum is habitats. So, taking the pupils outdoors into those habitats is one way of contextualising learning in that topic. Moreover, there is considerable evidence to suggest that learning outdoors is beneficial to pupil motivation and achievement. As I had concerns over my pupils’ attitudes to science I felt that outdoor learning might help to address this.

The aim of my study, therefore, was to find out whether taking the classroom outdoors had a positive effect on my pupils’ attitudes to science.

What I did

Image 3The learning focus for my project came from the National Curriculum programme of study on forces and habitats. These lessons were taught over a two week period, outdoors in the extensive school grounds. To determine pupil attitudes towards science before the study, they completed an open-response questionnaire. To establish if their attitudes changed as a result of the project, I asked them to complete the questionnaire again at the end of the study. I also used a fixed response questionnaire and observations of the pupils working outdoors to help understand how their attitudes changed. More information about the complex nature of attitudes and how to identify and measure them can be seen in my full dissertation.

What I found

Science is my favourite subjectPupil attitudes towards science clearly changed during the course of the study. It demonstrated to me that EAL learners’ attitude to science, in the primary setting at least, can be positively influenced by the context chosen. Being outdoors provided my EAL learners with the context that they needed to be able to understand the meaning of the science being taught. In addition, I found that learning outdoors is beneficial to EAL pupils because it helps to motivate them. This was highlighted by a rise in the number of pupils liking the subject and a fall in those not liking it. Also, those choosing it as their favourite subject or ranking it as a top subject had risen. The pupils themselves attributed these changes to their learning outdoors being contextualised and also to the fact that working outside afforded them a degree of freedom to explore that learning inside could not. In addition to this, information I collected at the end of the study also suggested that they might have actually learned more while working outdoors.

Indications of attitude change pre and post study

What does it all mean?

This study suggests that outdoor learning can influence EAL pupils’ attitudes and feelings towards science. It strongly suggests that real-life, outdoor experiences help to scaffold pupils’ learning of concepts and provide them with the context needed to understand the highly specific language used in science. Additionally, my observations indicated that the project had an impact on pupils’ personal and social skills. The study not only furthered my own knowledge and understanding of teaching EAL learners but helped to develop EAL pedagogy within the school, by developing the practice of other teachers.

This post is a plain language summary of Hainsworth M (2012). Changing attitudes to science in pupils with English as an additional language: How does learning science outside the classroom influence their attitudes to scientific enquiry? Masters Dissertation, Edge Hill University. A copy of the full dissertation can be obtained on request from the author on

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