Gary Gladding presenting at a 2014 conference for physics teachers

PER group

Our group includes members from both the Physics Department and the School of Education.

Papers and Talks

The Role of Language in Learning Physics


Many studies in PER suggest that language poses a serious difficulty for students learning physics. These difficulties are mostly attributed to misunderstanding of specialized terminology. This terminology often assigns new meanings to everyday terms used to describe physical models and phenomena. In this dissertation I present a novel approach to analyzing of the role of language in learning physics. This approach is based on the analysis of the historical development of physics ideas, the language of modern physicists, and students' difficulties in the areas of quantum mechanics, classical mechanics, and thermodynamics. These data are analyzed using linguistic tools borrowed from cognitive linguistics and systemic functional grammar. Specifically, I combine the idea of conceptual metaphor and grammar to build a theoretical framework that accounts for - the role and function that language serves for physicists when they speak and reason about physical ideas and phenomena, - specific features of students' reasoning and difficulties that may be related to or derived from language that students read or hear. The theoretical framework is developed using the methodology of a grounded theoretical approach. The theoretical framework allows us to make predictions about the relationship between student discourse and their conceptual and problem solving difficulties. Tests of the theoretical framework are presented in the context of "heat" in thermodynamics and "force" in dynamics. In each case the language that students use to reason about the concepts of "heat" and "force" is analyzed using the theoretical framework. The results of this analysis show that language is very important in students learning. In particular, students are - using features of physicists' conceptual metaphors to reason about physical phenomena, often overextending and misapplying these features, - drawing cues from the grammar of physicists' speech and writing to categorize physics concepts; this categorization of physics concepts plays a key role in students' ability to solve physics problems. In summary, I present a theoretical framework that provides a possible explanation of the role that language plays in learning physics. The framework also attempts to account for how and why physicists' language influences students in the way that it does.