What Are The Effects Of The Use Of Concept Cartoons In Vocabulary Knowledge And Comprehension Within Science Literacy For Pupils


What are the effects of the use of concept cartoons in vocabulary knowledge and comprehension within science literacy for pupils?


The aim of this study was to determine if the use concept cartoons is able to support the knowledge and understanding of key scientific vocabulary within mixed ability S1 and S2 classes during two science topics. The study was conducted with 36 students (20 S1 pupils and 16 S2 pupils) who were studying at a secondary school. In order to compare the effect of the concept cartoon, test results from a previous topic before the teaching intervention were taken alongside two other recording methods (test marks and observations). This data was then analysed and compared to test marks, observation notes, pre-topic and post-topic questionnaires. At the end of this study it was determined that there was no significant effect on academic scientific test marks achieved through the use of the concept cartoons. However, there was a meaningful difference in the pupils’ motivation and involvement in the use of scientific vocabulary, as shown through the use of the Likert scale during observations. It has been identified that the use of the concept cartoons during discussion activities reduces the anxiety some pupils face when having to share opinions and assisted in the identification of any misconceptions. According to data obtained the majority of pupils enjoyed the structure and security the concept cartoons provided to class discussions and become more open to sharing their opinions.


The term ‘scientific literacy’ has been used in literature and classrooms for more than four decades (Gallagher & Harsch, 1997), although it does not always have the same meaning (Bybee, 1997).  These days literacy across the curriculum in regards to attainment has become a major focus for many within Scottish education.  The results of the last survey from the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy (SLN) suggested that there has been no improvement in reading and writing since 2012, even suggesting a decrease in the writing performance of the P1, P4, P7 and S2 pupils assessed (BBC 2018).

Nationally through legislation such as the Curriculum for Excellence, which was implemented in 2010, in particular Building the Curriculum 4: literacy development and through the values of GIRFEC, the Scottish Government are clearly trying to support pupils individually and as a collective with it comes to literacy in all areas of the curriculum. The four aspects of the Curriculum for Excellence (Successful learners, Confident individuals, Responsible citizens and Effective Contributors) provide varying skills which can also be focused on literacy development, for example in the aspect of responsible citizens pupils should be able to display respect for others, and evaluate scientific issues – thus concept cartoons allow the pupils to learn how to have group and whole class discussions, letting other speak and listening, while also providing a platform to further inform them of a scientific issue. (REF)

These ideals filter down to a local level as a number of councils have included raising attainment through literacy as part of the National Improvement Framework.  The secondary school in which the study took place highlighted raising attainment through literacy in their School Improvement Plan (IHS School Improvement Plan).  These alongside observations of pupils needing literacy support or dropping marks in assessments due to complex scientific vocabulary are the reasons why this study was carried out.

Review of Sources

Nowadays, teacher focussed lessons are in decline, while the pupil lead learning is taking the lead in the classroom. One of the methods widely used within classrooms is problem-based learning (Balim et al., 2014). In this study they stated that the issue of the given scenario leads to an ‘active learning process’ where pupils learn how to solve problems independently. This method of learning begins after the teacher gives the students a problem in the form of a scenario taken from everyday life (Sahin, 2010).

After being given the various scenarios in the case of this study as a concept cartoon, the pupils should try to come to their own conclusion using their previous knowledge and existing knowledge  (Sockalingam et al., 2011). In this regard, the concept of cartoon is appropriate in linking any prior knowledge and then later the knowledge from the teaching as it can stimulate the ideas and the thinking skills of pupils. This can be a challenge and the pupils can develop their understanding through the support of the concept cartoon (Naylor and Keogh, 2013).  

The concept of cartoon is one of the most popular forms of instructional media used within classrooms (Subhan and Lilia, 2010). This is because it gives the pupils the ability to decide their own opinion and share it through the action of the cartoon characters (Subhan and Lilia, 2010).  The importance of the use of concept cartoons in teaching and learning strategies has also been shown in more recent studies (Koutnikova, 2017). Past studies have identified the effects of using cartoon concepts in learning through discussion skills (Kaylor and Keogh, 2013), pupils’ attitudes and engagement (Kaptan and Izgi, 2014) and student achievement.

Concept Cartoons improving motivation and engagement! (Keogh 1999) Confidence Solomon 1999

Vocabulary (Goldstein 1986) Language Skills (De Lange 2009)

Using CCs in class Dabell, Keogh and Naylor 2008 and Naylor and Keogh 2010

Misconceptions Naylor and Keogh 2013

Although there are many studies related to the use of concept cartoons in science teaching and learning, there is still a lack of research on cartoon concepts and their overall effects.

Research Questions

 The aim of this study is to determine the effect of concept cartoons on the scientific literacy of mixed ability classes of S1 and S2 pupils and if the use of the concept cartoons improves the pupils use of the scientific vocabulary and their comprehension of the terminology. During this study I tried to answer the following questions:

1)     Is there any improvement in pupil engagement within classroom and group discussions through the use of concept cartoons and the literacy support they provide?

2)     Do the pupils feel more confident in the use of the scientific terminology in describing their knowledge and understanding of the Energy Topic (S1) or Electricity Topic (S2)?

Concept cartoons present learners with a set of various ideas about a scientific concept in the format of multiple characters with speech bubbles (Keogh et al, (2002). For the purpose of this study the following definitions will be used:

  • Scientific Literacy: ‘an understanding of science and its applications to social experience. (Bybee, 2009)’ through the use of class and group discussions and presentations.
  • Motivation and Involvement: Using a Likert Scale, ranking the pupils from 1-6 in their involvement and motivation during discussions to observe how much they participate in the activity. (Keogh et al, 1999)
  • Misconceptions: The Oxford English Dictionary defines as misconception as “a  view or opinion that is incorrect because based on faulty thinking or understanding.”  (Naylor et al, 2013)
  • Knowledge and Comprehension: Having the ability to describe the meaning of the word and use it in a real life scenario.


Intervention and Enquiry Design

Data Collection

  • Questionnaires were completed by the 36 pupils involved in the study before the learning intervention and after the intervention. These pupils were taken from a S1 class consisting of 20 pupils aged between 12 and 13 years old and a S2 class consisting of 16 pupils aged between 13 and 14 years old, both classes were of mixed ability. These questionnaires asked the pupils to answer questions to share any prior knowledge they had and to make any already established misconceptions obvious to the class teacher. The exact same questionnaire was then completed again after the end of topic test post intervention in order to compare the responses given by the pupils in both classes. These comparisons allowed for it to be determined if the pupils not only understood the key concept terms they had been introduced to but if they could go on to explain them, showing their understanding.
  • Observations of both the small group discussions and whole class discussions that took place in the main part lessons 1 and 12 were carried out and the engagement and involvement of each individual pupil was noted using the Likert Scale. The Likert Scale was chosen to measure the engagement and involvement of the pupils in the discussion activities as part of the Curriculum for Excellence is to produce Successful Learners who are motivated and enthusiastic in their learning with a willingness to open up to new ideas and learning. The Likert Scale is useful in measuring these aspects as it provides a clear numerical rank for each pupil being observed. On the Likert Scale (1-6), a score of 1 indicated no involvement in the discussion and 6 indicated the pupils were very highly involved in the discussion. In order to make it more obvious for the observer the following key was used as shown in Figure 1.Additional comments were noted if required to comment on if the pupils took on a specific role within their group, such as note taker of spokesperson, in order to determine if pupils with certain levels of involvement within the discussion were more likely to undertake these roles.

Likert Scale Score

Involvement Level


Never Involved


Rarely Involved


Sometimes Involved


Often Involved


Highly Involved


Very Highly Involved

Figure 1: Table showing the observation scale used during the group and class discussions

  • Test marks were also recorded for each and every pupil within the study. These marks were collected from the end of topic test completed before the intervention took place and then the end of topic test completed post learning intervention. Comparing the marks from the test completed before and then the test completed after allowed the improvement or otherwise of the pupils to be noted in a quantitative manner, and the determination of whether or not the use of concept cartoons allowed for the pupils to increase their test scores for the relevant topic.

Throughout this study all pupils will remain anonymous, only being identified as a number, S1 (1-20) and S2 (1-16), they were also informed of they study taking place and given the opportunity to withdraw. The teaching intervention of the use of concept cartoons to assist in class and group discussion was then implemented in the manner detailed below:

  • Lesson 1 – The pupils completed the pre-topic questionnaire. The pupils were then introduced to either the energy or the electricity topics through a concept cartoon based group and whole class discussions. Pupils were split into groups of approximately 4 to discuss the speech bubbles. Each individual was asked to choose which bubble they agreed with and then the group were asked to make a decision as a whole group. These thoughts were then shared in a whole class discussion to determine any misconceptions were shared between individuals and the class.
  • Lessons 2-6 – As a class the pupils worked through the variety of teaching tasks, activities relating to the topic as predetermined by the school BGE timeline. While doing these activities and tasks the pupils were also able to fill in their topic workbooks in order to allow them to complete revision when required for assessments as per the curriculum.
  • Lessons 9 and 10 – General revision led by the teacher giving pupils time to fill in any missing topic notes and ask any questions alongside completing the various revision activities and games.
  • Lesson 11 – End of topic test.
  • Lesson 12 – Pupils return to their original groups from lesson 1. Looking back at the concept cartoon they are given the opportunity to discuss it once again and decide if they would like to change whatever speech bubble they agreed with, taking into consideration their new subject knowledge. Pupils were also asked to complete the topic questionnaire once again for a second time.

Analysis and Interpretation

The data collected presented a mixed account of the use of concept cartoons in promoting scientific vocabulary and comprehension. While problems were identified in regards to other factors influencing the test marks, positive results were noted in relation to the pupils engagement with the intervention techniques and their use of the vocabulary in the questionnaires.

Pre and Post Intervention Questionnaires

While many pupils were familiar with the concepts of Energy (S1) and Electricity (S2) before any teaching had taken place, few were able to correctly and confidently use the complex scientific language that would be required of them in the classwork and end of topic tests. Most pupils were able to identify key terms but either had no understanding of their meaning in the context of the topic or had misconceptions about the term.

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As shown in the graph (Figure 2) before the teaching intervention took place with the S2 class the scientific terms were only correctly explained as a whole, 26 times out of a possible 144 responses from the 16 pupils in the class. However, at the end of the study when given the opportunity to explain the same terms again, the correct responses were given 120 times out of the 144 responses.

Figure 2: Results of S2 pupils being asked to explain some electricity terminology before and after teaching intervention.

In the graph (Figure 3) before the teaching intervention took place with the S1 class the scientific terms were only correctly explained as a whole, 90 times out of a possible 180 responses from the 20 pupils in the class. At the end of the study when given the opportunity to explain the same terms again, the correct responses were given 159 times out of the 180 responses. Again this increase is very promising, however, as with the S2 class these questionnaire were repeated shortly after the tests were finished so it would be interesting if they were able to be filled in a while after the topic was completed to check retention as well as the understanding.

Figure 3: Results of S1 pupils being asked to explain some energy terminology before and after teaching intervention.

Learner Motivation and Involvement

In both groups of pupils, (S1 and S2), it was noted that in lesson 1, 13 out of the 36 pupils could be rated as very highly involved in the group and class discussions using the Likert Scale. These pupils usually became group leaders or volunteered to be the spokesperson when the discussion opened up to the whole class, as they were eager and confident in their knowledge to speak up.  In lesson 12, this number increased as 17 out of the 36 pupils could now be rated as highly involved in the discussions.

However not all pupils were eager to be as involved in the use of the concept cartoons in class and group discussion. During the discussions of lesson 1 it was noted that 5 pupils out of the 36 being observed rarely or never got involved, only speaking up if asked specifically by a fellow group member or member of staff. By lesson 12, 4 of these pupils remained reluctant to be as involved, but 1 pupil had increased their involvement as they sometimes spoke up on their own. It was noted by myself, the class teacher, that it was not unusual for these 5 pupils to be reluctant in participating in classroom activities. These pupils were all previously identified as having additional support needs within class and were generally reluctant to speak up in class- however individual discussions with the pupils and the test marks collected before and after intervention did describe the effect of the concept cartoons in their learning.

It was also observed that generally the amount of time pupils wanted to spend on a group discussion increased between lesson 1 and lesson 12 as their confidence with the topic also increased. This made a more interesting observation, as the groups were predetermined by the teacher and not up to pupil choice. The group dynamics also played a part in the levels of motivation and involvement observed during the group discussions. The 13 pupils who were very highly involved in lesson 1 and then the 17 who were observed as very highly involved in lesson 12 did somewhat inhibit the involvement of the quieter members of the groups by becoming overly dominant and controlling the pace of the discussion. In this case the intervention of myself as the class teacher or a PSA in the room had a positive impact on the discussion by prompting other pupils to take the lead at points.

Test Marks

Analysis of the end of topic test marks achieved by the 36 pupils taking part in the concept cartoon intervention also reflected the same mixed picture on the impact of the intervention. As shown in Figure 4, 8 of the 16 pupils in the S2 class actually achieved lower marks in the end of topic test after the introduction of the concept cartoons compared to the end of topic test taken before the intervention. However, as previously mentioned this cause of this is unclear and could have been caused by other factors being involved in the tests. These tests remained unchanged from the premade end of the topic tests the school already used; therefore they contained problem solving questions, graph drawing and table interpretation, so pupils could lose marks in these questions if they were not strong in these areas. Another factor was the added time pressure in completing all the questions in the test, unlike the questionnaires or discussions there was a strict time pressure of 50 minutes in completing the tests, some pupils were unable to finish but may have scored extra marks if they had been given a longer time period. Therefore, further assessments would need to be carried out to specifically test for the vocabulary understanding and comprehension in relation to the concept cartoons.

Figure 4: Comparison of S2 percentage tests scores from topic before intervention and topic in which intervention was used.

In the S1 class, 11 out of the 20 pupils either improved on their previous test marks or remained the same (Figure 5). As with the S2 electricity tests, there were a number of different styles of questions and a number of the pupils did struggle with the numeracy marks throughout. After consulting with other staff members within the science department it was concluded that the energy topic and tests were probably the most challenging of all the S1 topics as a lot of the pupils in the past had struggled with some of the concepts, such as energy not being lost. Therefore, if the study had been able to continue it would be interesting to compare how the current S1 pupils do in the S2 electricity topic after already being exposed to the concept cartoons before compared to the S2 observations already recorded.

Figure 5: Comparison of S1 percentage tests scores from topic before intervention and topic in which intervention was used.


This study was designed in order to evaluate the use of concept cartoons as a tool for improving pupil scientific literacy in the context of vocabulary knowledge and comprehension through discussion and tests results. The data collected indicated that while concept cartoons do produce an increase in overall class motivation and involvement within discussions, they do not significantly improve the overall test marks achieved by the pupils observed. However, the tests that the pupils completed were not specifically testing the vocabulary within the topic so these results cannot be completed reflective of the use of the concept cartoons. The pre and post intervention questionnaires gave a more defined analysis of how the use of the concept cartoons during discussion can help improve vocabulary knowledge and comprehension, but again there were faults within this data. The post intervention questionnaires were completed shortly after the topic and the revision for the class test, so it may be more useful if they could have been completed for a third time a few weeks after the topic was completed, in order to confirm that they vocabulary had been retained.

The improvement in pupil engagement within the classroom and group discussion through the use of the concept cartoons was evident. As observed during all the discussion activities the quality of the discussion greatly improved as the pupils learned how to manage themselves during these activities, highlighting an improvement through the Curriculum For Excellence aspect of responsible citizens. It was identified by Carr et all (1994) that discussion was the most influential feature of a science class in regards to the pupils learning and thus the concept cartoons promoted more learning as they gave quieter pupils the confidence to speak up and share their opinions.

To improve this study and gain more detailed specific data it should be repeated over the course of a school year with classes in order to establish if the use of concept cartoons encourages long-term knowledge and comprehension of the scientific terms. The class tests used for results should also be modified to focus specifically on the vocabulary knowledge and comprehension, removing the problem solving and numeracy in order to determine the true effect of the intervention. It would also be helpful to continue this study, changing the group compositions and sizes to see if that influences how pupils participate in the discussion activities.  This study was completed with S1 and S2 pupils as the concept cartoons available corresponded with the topics being covered by these year groups. Although the study did show that concept cartoons do encourage quieter pupils to participate in discussion, and do improve some test marks, it would be interesting to observe if the same happened with older pupils and more complex topics.

Implications for practice/research

The engagement of the pupils during the concept cartoon activities has definitely motivated me to try and incorporate them further into my teaching practice in different topics. By focussing on scientific literacy I faced challenge and misconceptions about what that term meant with the pupils but also had a great deal of positive feedback from pupils in relation to how they felt it had improved their test marks.

During this enquiry I regularly kept not only my colleagues in science informed about how the pupils were engaging but I also spoke to my fellow probationers to let them know if classes we shared were being impacted. All of the concept cartoon recourses and questionnaires I produced have been made available to my departmental colleagues and they provided helpful feedback in regards to the wording of questionnaires and discussion management techniques. This practitioner enquiry has given me the opportunity to try something completely new in my classrooms and will hopefully allow me to continue to develop my practice and confidence in this area of the curriculum.



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