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STUDENTS ACHIEVEMENT AND LANGUAGE PROBLEMS IN LEARNING


BIOLOGY IN ENGLISH IN PUBLIC AND PRIVATE SCHOOLS

Mohidin Bin Haji Noordin
PAP Hajah Masnah Secondary School
Brunei Darussalam
Bob CS Yong
Universiti Brunei Darussalam
<csyong@shbie.ubd.edu.bn>

Abstract
Language plays an important role in learning biology and this is none more so when students
are second language learners. As biology is descriptive in nature, students need to have
sufficient language proficiency in order to constitute meaning of biology concepts. The
purpose of this study was to investigate students achievement and problems encountered by
students learning biology in English in public and private schools. The study involved two
different samples of students in Form 5 classes (or Grade 11). The first sample of students
was used to find out the correlations between English language and biology achievements.
The second sample was used to find out the problems encountered by students in learning
biology through the medium of English and data were collected by means of a questionnaire.
Results indicated there was a positive significant association between English language and
biology achievement scores. It was also found that students encountered enormous problems
learning biology in English and this was especially so for students in the public schools.
Findings of this study further support the importance of language in learning biology.
Implications for teaching and learning biology were discussed.


Introduction
The Education System of Brunei Darussalam
Brunei Darussalam introduced a bilingual system of education in 1985. Its main aim is to enable
students to master Malay and English for the expansion of knowledge. In this system, Malay is the medium of
instruction during preschool and the first three years (Grades 1-3) of primary school for all subjects except
English which is taught as a subject. In subsequent grades (Grades 4-6), subjects like English, science,
mathematics, history and geography are taught in English, while Malay, art, physical education, civics and
Islamic religious knowledge are taught in Malay.
The Ministry of Education has taken much effort to enhance the learning of English in schools. Though
there are indications of some positive results, much has yet to be done to improve the present situation. Over the
years, there is a steady increase in percentage of students who obtained a credit pass in English at O-level but
the attainment in public schools is disappointingly lower (14%) compared to private schools (55%) (Ministry of
Education, 2006).

Review of Literature
In the local context, there has been much concern on underachievement of science in primary schools
(Lim, Suntharalechmy and Romaizah, 1999; Romaizah, 2005) and in secondary schools (Yong, 2001). Part of
the reason is because students do not have sufficient proficiency in English to learn science (Heppner, Heppner,
Leong, 1997; Noraidah, 2001; Yong, 2003).
Research studies have shown that students encounter enormous problems learning biology in English
and this is particularly so for those who are second language (ESL) learners as in the case of Bruneian students
(Heppner, Heppner, Leong, 1997; Yong, 2001, 2003). Yong (2003) reviewed a corpus of research literature and
reported that ESL students encounter many problems learning biology in English and among them are as
follows:

Lack of language proficiency of ESL learners
Many ESL students do not have the necessary linguistic tools to construct advanced science concepts
(Duran, Dugan and Weffer, 1998). Duran and Weffer (1992) observed that students with limited English
proficiency seemed to have a weaker knowledge of science and this inevitably affected their achievement test
scores in science. They reasoned that these students have difficulty reading science textbooks and deriving
meanings from analogies and metaphors that are frequently used in science. Another problem faced by ESL
students is their inability to understand teachers discourse during instruction (Duran, Dugan and Weffer, 1998).

Language used in Science Textbooks
The language used in many science textbooks exceeds the normal experience of many elementary
students (Merzyn, 1987) and high school students (Lynch, et al., 1972 cited in Letsoalo, 1996), p. 184) for
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whom they are written. It has been reported that the language used in some African school science textbooks is
too advanced for many of the pupils (Letsoalo, 1996). Similarly, high-school biology textbooks used in the
Caribbean Islands (Soyibo, 1996) and Brunei (Heppner, Heppner, Leong, 1997) were found to be too difficult
for the target students to read and understand.

Nature of the Written Text in School Biology Textbooks
Unlike chemistry and physics, biology is more descriptive in nature (Abimbola and Baba, 1996).
Biology texts are often found to consist of long and complex sentences that are laden with facts. Such structural
complexities may impose considerable cognitive demands on ESL students. Richardson and Lock (1995)
pointed out that biology contains many technical terms in describing its concepts, principles and theories, and is
therefore more susceptible to reading difficulty than other natural sciences. Many technical terms are derived
from Latin and Greek words which are alien to students.
In Brunei Darussalam, it has long been recognised that students in private schools achieve much better
in biology compared with students in public schools. This may be because students in private schools have a
better command of English when they are in primary level (Norlina, 2002) and have better language skills in
secondary level (Yong, 2004). The purposes of the present study were to find out the problems encountered by
students learning biology in English in public and private schools. The study focused on the following specific
questions:

1. Are there any significant relationships in students achievement between English and biology?
2. Are there any significant differences in problems encountered by students learning biology in English
between public and private schools?

Method
Two different samples of students were used in the study. The first sample was used to find out the
correlations between English and biology achievements. The students were drawn from 29 public schools and
12 private schools. Two cohorts of students who took O-level examinations in 2001 and 2005 were chosen for
the study. The 2001 cohort consisted of 1091 students from public schools and 215 students from private
schools while the 2005 cohort consisted of 964 and 333 students from public and private schools respectively.
Grades obtained by students in English and biology at O-level were analysed using Persons product-moment
correlation to obtain the coefficients (r) values. In order to do this, grades obtained by students have to be first
recorded as weighed scores. The grades were coded as follows:

GCE O-level Grades Weighed Score in this Study
Distinction (A) 6
Credit (B) 5
Credit (C) 4
Pass (D) 3
Pass (E) 2
Fail (U) 1

The second sample consisted of 201 students from 9 public schools and 187 students from 9 private
schools. These were Form 5 students who were about to sit for their O-level examinations at the end of 2006.
This sample of students was not related to the first sample of students.
The questionnaire was similar to the one used in the earlier study by Yong (2001). It consists of 12
statements to find out the problems students encountered in learning biology using English as a second
language. The items were scored on a five-point Likert-type scale in which 1 for never, 2 for seldom, 3 for
sometimes, 4 for often and 5 for always. The questionnaires were distributed to students by their teachers
during the normal biology lesson in May-June 2006.

Results and Discussion
Research question #1: Are there any significant relationships in students achievement between English
and biology?
Results obtained for Pearsons product-moment correlation showed that there was a positive significant
association between English and biology achievement scores for both cohorts of students (Table 1). This
suggested that linguistic ability of students was clearly a factor which influenced students achievement in
science. Studies by Fradd and Lee (1999 cited in Rollnick, 2000 p. 111) also noted that language proficiency
and literacy were closely related to science learning. The high correlation coefficient values between English
and biology suggested that students achievement in biology was very much affected by their English
proficiency. In other words, students who scored high grades in English were also more likely to score high
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grades in biology and vice versa. In this study it was found that as high as 30% of the variance in students
achievement in biology could be explained by their English proficiency.

Table 1
Correlation Coefficients between English and Biology
Year N Biology
2001
2005
1306
1297
English
English
0.56*
0.54*
Correlation coefficient is significant at 0.01 level (2-tailed); N = number of students; *p<0.05

Research question #2: Are there any significant differences in problems encountered by students learning
biology in English in public and private schools?
As shown in Table 2, there were significant differences in 11 of the 12 items under investigated. The
mean scores of these items ranged between 1.96 to 3.90 and the effect size values ranged from small (0.32) to
high (1.47). The first three items in order of importance where students encountered problems in learning
biology were understanding teachers explanations during lessons, understanding teachers notes and
understanding the instructions of the experiments. The results were similar to Yongs (2001) earlier study with
university students. In the present study it was found that students in public schools encountered these problems
at slightly higher frequency than students in private schools. It appeared that students in public schools have
greater preference for teachers explanations and lesson notes given in simpler English, and they also need to
read the instructions of the experiments more times before they can understand how to conduct the experiments
than students in private schools.

Table 2
Problems Encountered by Students Learning Biology in English in Public and Private Schools

Items
Public Private
t-value

ES Mean SD Mean SD

1. Understand biology lessons better if
the teacher explains using simpler
English.

3.90

1.09

3.32

1.17

5.06***

0.51
2. Prefer teacher to give biology notes
written in simpler English.
3.89 1.09 3.27 1.31 5.03*** 0.52
3. Need to read the instructions of the
experiments several times before
able to understand them.
3.88 0.98 3.55 1.08 3.19** 0.32
4. Understand better if biology
textbooks are written simpler
English.
3.75 1.15 3.09 1.27 5.30*** 0.55
5. Learn by heart (memorising) for the
tests/exams.
3.49 1.07 3.38 1.07 1.04
6. Questions given in the biology
tests/exams are difficult to
understand.
3.25 0.96 2.68 0.91 5.99*** 0.60
7. Can answer biology questions easily
in English
3.25 1.03 3.87 1.03 -5.98*** 0.62
8. Use Malay when explaining things
to friends during biology lessons.
3.25 1.23 1.60 1.00 14.55*** 1.47
9. Find it hard to write own notes when
the biology teacher explains the
lessons.
3.09 1.08 2.55 1.10 4.79*** 0.50
10. Biology textbooks are difficult to
read and understand.
2.91 1.12 2.47 0.96 4.12*** 0.42
11. Make a lot of mistakes when
writing biology notes in English.
2.91 1.06 2.19 1.03 6.78*** 0.69
12. Find it hard to ask questions during
the biology lessons.
2.85 1.22 1.96 1.02 7.83*** 0.72
**p<0.01; ***p<0.001; N in public schools = 201; N in private schools = 187

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Another problem encountered by students was the language used in biology textbooks. Significantly,
students in public schools encountered this problem more than students in private schools. A common practice
by biology teachers is giving out notes photocopied from textbooks as supplementary reading materials for
students to read. This practice would not benefit the majority of students as they would not be able to articulate
and comprehend fully the contents of notes that were given to them. The prevalence of rote learning provided
another evidence of the problem encountered by ESL learners. Both groups of students reported that they
sometimes resorted to rote learning for the tests and exams.
Learning biology through a second language also poses other problems for students. Students in both
types of schools were found to be unable to fully understand the exam questions and this problem was found to
be significantly higher in pubic schools than in private schools (Table 2). Students in public schools responded
that they encountered greater problem on answering biology questions in English than students in private
schools.
Limited language proficiency also affected students writing and oral skills. Significantly, students in
public schools encountered these problems more than students in private schools. Students in public schools
used more Malay to explain biology concepts to friends, found it harder to write their own notes, encountered
more difficulty in reading and understanding biology textbooks, make more mistakes when writing their notes
in English and found it harder to ask questions during biology lessons than their counterparts in private schools.
Lack of language proficiency will certainly stifle their willingness to participate in class discussion.

Conclusion
Secondary school students in public and private schools in Brunei Darussalam encounter much
problems in learning biology using English as a second language. As this study showed, a positive significant
correlation was obtained between English and biology which indicates that students achievement in biology is
greatly affected by English language proficiency.
Findings of this study showed that the problems encountered by students in public schools were
significantly greater than students in private schools. The incidence of inability to understand fully teachers
explanations, biology notes that were given to them and biology textbooks was found to be higher in public
schools than private schools. Students in public schools would be more preferred if these were presented in
simpler English that they can easily understand than students in private schools. More students in public schools
were also found to encounter problems in understanding the instructions of the experiments and the questions
given in the biology examination papers. Surprisingly, many students in both types of schools were found to
resort to rote learning for their tests or exams. This provided further evidence of the problem faced by students
learning biology in English as a second language. It was reported that students used rote learning if they had
problems of conceptualising the subject matter being taught (Prophet, 1990; Yoder, 1994). It is likely that
failure to understand fully or to construct personal meaning of the concepts learned due to constraints by
language compelled many Bruneian students to resort to rote learning.
Low English proficiency also influences the writing and oral skills of Bruneian students and this is
particularly so for students in public schools. As this study showed many students in public schools were found
to have greater difficulty in writing their own notes and in asking questions in English during biology lessons.
In a separate study, Yong (2007) found that students in public schools have poor literacy skills in spoken and
written English and he reasoned that this has an important influence on students academic success in public
schools. Bourke (1999) also made the same observation when he assessed the English language proficiency of
O-level students in Brunei Darussalam. He reported that the standard of English after eleven years of schooling
is quite simply substandard and Many candidates found it difficult to write even short, simple sentences free
from error, and, in extreme cases, examiners were sometimes unable to deduce the intended meaning because
the word order and linkages were so un-English (p. 13). The problem seems to be more acute in public than in
private schools. Thus, it appears that limited English proficiency is one of the main reasons for explaining
students low performance in biology in public schools compared with their counterparts in private schools.

Implications of Research
Since language is an obstacle to learning biology of ESL learners, teachers must find alternative
instructional strategies to overcome the language barrier created by the language practices of biology. The
following strategies may help ESL learners in learning biology:
1. Present lessons in language that facilitates understanding. The language experience of
teachers far exceeds those of the students. Instead of facilitating learning, language used during instruction may
in fact impede students understanding. For maximum impact, lessons presentation should take into account the

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suitability of the sentence structure, vocabulary and word structure. Preferably the language used in instruction
should be easily understood so that students are not overwhelmed by the language in learning biology.
2. Prepare simple notes for students. Ideally notes written in short and less complex sentences
will be more intelligible compared to those written in long and complex sentences. They should also be written
in simpler English and contain few technical terms. It is desirable that the readability of the notes is consonant
with the language ability of the students.
3. Use diagrams and visual texts to illustrate selected concepts. The use of clearly illustrated
diagrams and visual texts will help facilitate understanding and retention of the concepts being presented. As
Lee and Fradd (1996) noted teachers can facilitate students comprehension and expression of science content
by providing students with concrete experiences connected with written and pictorial representations.
4. Teach for conceptual understanding. Use inquiry approach to facilitate learning and
understanding. Lessons should include more biology practical work instead of didactic teacher-centred
instruction. The procedures should be explicitly explained before letting students to carry out the experiments.
Group work will provide a suitable means for students to help one another in enhancing concept development.
5. Use clear and simple language in exam questions. Studies have shown that students of
English as a second or third language performed significantly better when the test questions were modified
(Bird and Welford, 1995). In order to help students articulate clearly, exam questions should be short, contain
words that are familiar and omit extraneous information.

As students in public and private schools are ESL learners, it is important that teachers be sensitive and
should take into account of the discourse during instruction to suit the linguistic ability of the students. Teachers
should also use other approaches to enhance further understanding of the biology concepts that are presented to
them.

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