Looking at Language
When it comes to studying the use of language, this month’s topic “invasive species” is a prefect. Just take a look at the word “invasive.” What emotions does it conjure? In what other contexts have you heard that word used? Would you consider the term to be objective or subjective?
In the STEM disciplines, educators work hard to help students understand the value of objectivity. We all want engineers designing bridges to take an objective approach to measurement! When studying the natural world, objectivity helps us uncover truths unhampered by personal biases, emotions, and beliefs.
But no human is perfectly objective. To promote better practitioners of STEM, we must help students develop the intellectual tools to think critically about their own and other’s biases. An inquiry into the language used in STEM books is a great way to introduce that. It’s also a great way to learn more about writing STEM texts.
Reading STEM books we gain more than facts; we have opportunities to understand communication strategies as well. Through studying these texts, we can learn to parse out bias in statements. When we extend our personal study with discussion, we can explore more complex topics such as perceptions of others, understanding nuance, and author’s purpose.
Take a look at just the titles:
- Science Warriors: The Battle Against Invasive Species, by Sneed B. Collard III
- Tracking Pythons: The Quest to Catch an Invasive Predator and Save an Ecosystem, by Kate Messner
- Invasive Species In Infographics By Renae Gilles
Read each title and jot down a few words about the feelings it evokes in you.
Do different titles evoke different emotions? If so, try to identify the words that led you to those reactions?
Take a look at their table of contents. If you don’t have access to the physical books, you can view table of contents here for Science Warriors, here for Tracking Pythons, and here for Invasive Species In Infographics. List the emotion that comes to mind as you read each chapter title. Do you notice any patterns?
Now, select one book to dig into. Feel free to select one from this month’s list or a nonfiction title of your choice.
“What” questions to ask:
- What words in the text evoke emotions?
- Create a list of emotional words from the text and rank them on a spectrum from strongest to weakest. Compare your list to that of someone else also studying the same text. Discuss your differences.
- Does the emotive language always support the same point of view?
“When” questions to ask:
- In which parts of the sentence/paragraph/chapter/book is emotive language used most frequently?
- Can you spot any patterns in the use of emotive language (location, sequencing, etc.?
“Why” questions to ask:
- Why might an author use emotive language in this passage?
- Pick a few words that strike a chord in you. Why does that word cause that reaction?
“How?” questions to ask:
- How obvious is the emotive language?
- How did the author use language to support a premise?
- How could you re-write a sentence to be more objective?
Balancing it Out
Now that we understand how authors are intentional in their use of specific words, let’s think about other techniques. Opinion, bias, and subjectivity are expressed or balanced using techniques that reach far beyond word choice. What other techniques did you notice in this book? Were specific techniques are used to balance bias or convey objectivity?
- What is your opinion about this use of emotive language?
- Is it warranted?
- Was the author “fair” in their use of language?
- Is your response based on your opinions about the topic?
Thanks for getting curious about the use of objective language in STEM books!
Heather L. Montgomery writes for kids who are wild about animals. An award-winning author and educator, Heather uses yuck appeal to engage young minds. Her books include: Something Rotten: A Fresh Look at Roadkill, Who Gives a Poop? Surprising Science from One End to the Other, and What’s in Your Pocket? Collecting Nature’s Treasures. Learn more at www.HeatherLMontgomery.com