Teaching Vocabulary in a Science Classroom

Interactive Notebooks

I was terrible at teaching vocabulary for many years of my career.  The terms just existed in textbooks and notes, but I never explicitly taught it.

I am not an English teacher.  My grammar is bad.  My spelling is worse.  I certainly didn’t feel trained or qualified to teach vocabulary.  And to be perfectly honest, it seemed like a huge waste of time.

In the era of NGSS, teachers are (correctly) moving away from teaching memorization and moving toward facilitating observations, analysis and helping students to develop critical thinking skills.

And that’s great.  Because it REALLY doesn’t matter if a kid can name the parts of a cell, or define photosynthesis or recite the phases of mitosis in order.

However, we are asking students to make claims based on their observations and to provide evidence and reasoning.  Students need vocabulary to properly articulate their ideas.  It is the job of all educators to teach precise, academic language so that they can be understood.

There have been several times in the last few months that I have heard science teachers say that they do not teach vocabulary.  One teachers recently messaged me and said that her new curriculum specifically states that they should not teach vocabulary.

I think that is a missed opportunity.

Most language acquisition experts suggest focusing on tier 2 words.  These are high frequency words used across academic disciplines (construct, analyze, verify, etc).  By selecting these terms, teachers can maximize the effect of vocabulary instruction on student achievement.

Choosing Vocabulary Terms

I try to select the following types of terms:

  • Applicable tier 2 words: substance, consist, property
  • High frequency science words (that seem to appear across science disciplines): atom, mixture, energy, protein
  • Words that have dual meanings: yield (the roadway sign that isn’t quite a stop sign or the amount that you produce)
    • I do this to avoid confusion and make connections.
  • Prefixes, suffixes and root words that can help students to decode more complex vocabulary: hetero-/homo-, hyper-/hypo-/iso-

I try to avoid:

  • Tier 1 words (the easy ones they are probably already familiar with)
  • Infrequently used science words: metalloid*, electron transport chain, phospholipid bilayer

* As a side note…. I would just like to point out that this is ideal vocabulary selection.  In a moment of planning exhaustion I totally picked the word metalloid for my vocabulary this year.  If you choose a word that isn’t really beneficial, simply make a note and plan to take it out next year.

How many words?

I teach 8 words every Monday unless we are ending a unit and spending that time reviewing material.  Why?

  • It’s manageable.  I can come up with 8 relevant words a week and not repeat them.  At least most of the time.  (I taught the word property twice last year.  Oops!)
  • It fits well into our interactive notebook.
  • It doesn’t take up too much of my instructional time.  My 8th graders get through a vocab lesson in about 20 minutes.
  • At some point during my teaching career some presenter said that students can successfully learn 5-10 new words in your class each week.  8 is somewhere in the middle.

Notebooks and Grading

We keep these in the right side of our interactive notebook.  I provide 8 terms, 8 definitions and 8 pictures or examples.  The picture must be colored and they are required to have 3 colors on the page.  Vocab pages (and all pages in my notebook) are worth 5 points.  Here is the grading scale:

  • 5 – complete, neat, pictures in color
  • 4 – complete, missing color or difficult to read
  • 3 – missing pictures but all terms and definitions are present
  • 2 – missing 1-2 terms and definitions
  • 1- missing more that 2 definitions

When we swap/grade notebooks, students are very familiar with this scale because we do vocab every week.  Most kids get a 4 or a 5.

Additional Support

I always add the vocabulary to my Quizlet account so that it is always available to students.  They can study the vocabulary using the app or a Chromebook and this is one of the things early finishers can do.  This also adds a layer of accesibility.  This has been especially helpful to English language learners and students with visual impairments.

I also offer some students a copy, depending on need, of the vocabulary before the pictures are drawn in.  The student is then only responsible for coloring in the pictures or adding the examples.

When to Teach the Vocabulary

There are basically two options for deciding when to teach the vocab.  You can front load the vocabulary at the beginning of the week for the concepts that will be discussed that week.  OR, you could teach the vocab after you teach the concept.  I do both.  If the terms are going to come up in a reading assignment I almost always teach it ahead of time.  If students are doing inquiry work or simulations I usually wait until the following week to teach that vocabulary so that I don’t take away their “AHA!” moment.

What role does vocabulary play in your science classroom?


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