Language and Science

This is definitely a post for teachers!  We recently had some fantastic PD at school with Dr. Gini Rojas focusing on ELL: English Language Learning.  What was particularly useful were the range of strategies shared for developing and extending language skills in all classrooms – even IB Biology!

It does not take long for an IB teacher (or student) to realise that one of the keys to success is understanding the language of the exam, in particular determining exactly what it is that the question is asking.  Students need to be able to triangulate the Command Term, question and the number of marks, as well as interpret any additional information provided, in order to submit the appropriate response.  For English Language Learners, this can be especially challenging.

Based on a conversation with a colleague, I had a quick analysis of the word count of HL Paper 2 for  2014 (May TZ1 and TZ2 and November) and related it to the types of questions on the paper.  The results, while not definitive, do give some interesting indications of areas to focus on during class.

The figure below shows that the average number of words in the Data-Based Question section (DBQ) are considerably higher than the other two sections (Extended Response Questions – ERQ and Short Answer Questions – SAQ) of paper 2.  This is not surprising when you consider the additional information included with this question.

Word Count and Question Type
Word Count and Question Type
Ratio of word number to marks available.
Ratio of word number to marks available.

The second graph shows the average number of words per mark on the papers.  Again, the amount of words needed per mark are far greater for the DBQ than the other two sections. So what, if anything, does this “back of the envelope” calculation tell us about exams?

The DBQs require the least preparation in the sense that they are based on unseen information.  Often, the best way for students to prepare for them is to practice as many past DBQs as possible.  But looking at the language and format, there are definitely some areas that students can specifically work on in order to improve their marks. As they are worth 18 marks in HL P2, which equates to approximately 9% of their final IB Biology Grade, it is important that some thought is given here.

One of the most important things to understand are the Command Terms.  While they are no longer emphasised as much in the new syllabus, they are still the key to performing well on Paper 2 and 3. These are Tier 2 vocabulary words, meaning they have different meanings in different subjects.  Knowing the difference between “Explain” and “Evaluate” in a biology paper could be crucial.  Practicing with sentence starters linked to the command term is one way to do this, especially for EAL students. Matching Command Term to definition is an easy formative quiz topic as well.

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Sentence Starters for Compare and Contrast – Sweetwater District (2010)

Other useful tips include: highlighting and annotating the paragraphs to identify key information; writing a short summary of each graph’s data; paying attention to the number of marks available and looking for any key terms mentioned in the question (using an example; looking at all the data; based on the previous graph etc.)

There is much more to talk about here; I will try to put together another post before the exam season starts.  Please send any comments about how you prepare your students for DBQs; students feel free to ask any questions.


Sweetwater District-Wide Academic Support Teams. 2010. Academic Language Function Toolkit. Web. 8 March, 2016.