How to Teach Science Vocabulary Using Best Practices

January 17, 2023 No Comments

It took me a long time to find an effective strategy for teaching science vocabulary in my classroom. In fact, this post was originally written in January 2018 and was one of my first posts. I thought I had my strategy worked out, but my philosophy has changed significantly since then. In fact, instead of editing that post, it made more sense to delete the entire thing and start over.

Here is a comprehensive look at the best researched-based strategies for teaching science vocabulary. And, I’m including some of the strategies that really well for me in my own classroom.

Why is it important to teach science vocabulary?

Teaching science vocabulary is important for so many reasons. Most obviously, it helps students to explain observations and phenomena and ask targeted questions. Also, an understanding of key vocabulary helps students access information from other resources. For example, it helps them to understand scientific texts, engage in the practice of argumentation and communicate their ideas.

Struggling to Explain

From my own observations, I see how difficult it is for students when they are having trouble explaining their understanding. One of the most common phrases I hear in the classroom is “I understand it, but I don’t know how to explain it.”

I used to think that this meant students didn’t actually understand. But, I’ve come to realize that students often create models of science concepts in their heads. Often, these models are highly accurate. However, they struggle to translate what they are visualizing in their heads into words.

Explain it any way you can.

I’ll talk about some of the other strategies that I’ve used (like using student descriptions to define terms) soon. But for now, one of my favorite strategies is to ask students to explain what they’ve learned in any way they can. Often, students believe they need to express their thoughts using specific scientific terminology. While that is the ultimate goal, this shouldn’t inhibit their communication. It’s far better to explain their thinking in their own terms. From there, we can always clean up the vocabulary.

How to Teach Science Vocabulary

Some of the advice in this section will run counter to what you have learned about teaching science vocabulary. But, I assure you that these are best practices. Here are the things you need to do in order to make sure you are teaching vocabulary effectively.

Step 1: Provide Context Before Teaching Vocabulary

As with all things science, we want to use an explore-before-explain approach for teaching. On the teaching science in 3D podcast, we call this discovery-based learning. Using this approach, we provide students with context before we teach them anything. For example, rather than using a lab activity to confirm what students learned during the lecture portion of the class, we do the lab first. Then, students explain what they understand about the activity. Finally, direct instruction, a video, or reading is used to clarify student understanding. This approach deepens student understanding.

To find out more about discovery-based learning, click here.

Purple background with white text and shapes.   Text reads "Explore before explain.  Even with vocabulary."
Front loading is no longer considered best practice for teaching science vocabulary. Instead, use and explore before explain approach.

Why shouldn’t you front load?

It’s important to focus on the conceptual meaning before teaching vocabulary. This is for two main reasons. First, a student’s inability to describe a phenomenon using academic science vocabulary isn’t necessarily related to the understanding of science content. In fact, language often creates a barrier for students who understand but struggle to explain in scientific terms.

Also, students are more likely to understand the meaning behind the term if they have a context.

But, shouldn’t you front-load vocabulary to support multilingual students?

Actually, no. In fact, using an explore before explain approach is incredibly effective for multilingual students. To begin, it allows them to actively participate in the discovery of scientific ideas without needing to acquire science-specific language to do so. Next, this strategy helps students to acquire language outside of science-specific content by allowing them to practice using language to describe phenomena. For more information, check out STEM Teaching Tools Issue #66, Why you should stop pre-teaching science vocabulary and focus on students developing a conceptual meaning first. Read that brief by clicking here.

Finally, context is incredibly valuable for multilingual learners. In fact, building coherent storylines helps support students in meaning-making. To learn more about this, check out Scott E. Grapin’s blog post, Why Coherence Matters for Multilingual Students in Science Education. Access that blog post by clicking here.

To learn more about building storylines, click here.

Step 2: Co-Create Definitions and Track Science Vocabulary Words

Once students explore content, start working together to introduce new terminology and define terms.

Co-Creating Definitions

It works best if definitions are co-created in a collaborative process using students’ own words. First, this helps to value student voice in your classroom. Secondly, it provides meaningful definitions that are easy for your students to use.

The process of co-creating definitions is a bit tricky when you are first getting started. It requires a lot of flexibility in the structure of your lesson in order to accommodate students’ voices.

Keeping Track of Terms and Definitions

In addition to providing and defining terms, it’s also important that students have a way to keep track of the terms. There are many different ways this is done in the science classroom. For example, some teachers use word walls in the classroom. Others teachers have students keep track of vocabulary in their interactive notebooks. It doesn’t REALLY matter which method you choose. But, it is important that students know how to access this resource when they need it.

How to Co-Construct and Track Science Vocabulary

I tried writing out the steps that I use to con-construct definitions in the classroom. But, it was difficult to demonstrate the nuance in words. So, I decided to create a YouTube Video to show you what this looks like when I teach it.

Step 3: Give Students Meaningful Ways to Use the Vocabulary

It’s not enough to provide context and define terms with students. Also, you need to provide them with meaningful ways to apply their understanding of the terms.

This doesn’t have to be complicated. Here are simple ways to have students use vocabulary:

  • Provide students with a word bank and ask them to describe their current understanding of the phenomenon.
  • Ask students to create a model and label part of the model using vocabulary.
  • Provide the opportunity for students to engage in argumentation and provide sentence frames that include the vocabulary terms. This may be a verbal argumentation or written as a CER.
  • Use a Crosscutting Concept Graphic Organizer and ask students to use current vocabulary when filling it out.

More Questions About Science Vocabulary Answered

Q: Should I give science vocabulary tests?

A: No. Science vocabulary tests aren’t the best way to assess student understanding. Instead, assess students on their ability to use vocabulary in context. For example, ask them to answer a question a give them a list of vocabulary terms. See which terms they are most comfortable using and if there are any misconceptions that need to be addressed.

4 Ways to Assess Understanding of Science Vocabulary: Create a model.  Write an argument.  Describe a phenomenon.  Connect to the Crosscutting Concepts.
Here are a few quick ideas for assessing students in meaningful ways.

Check out STEP 3 Above for more ideas.

Q: How do I make sure that vocabulary lessons are 3-dimensional?

A: This question relates to the 3-dimensions of the NGSS: the Science and Engineering Practices, Disciplinary Core Ideas, and Crosscutting Concepts. I like to include terms related to all three dimensions related to the content that I’m working with. For example, if I want students to make a connection to the Crosscutting Concept of Systems and System Models, I might include the terms system and components if we haven’t discussed these terms in class yet. But also, it’s important that your list of terms is not too overwhelming. So, be choosy about the words you select.

Finally, give students the opportunity to use the vocabulary with the SEPs and CCCs. For example, ask students to include vocabulary in a CER or in a model.

Q: How do you choose which science vocabulary terms to teach?

A: It’s important to be selective about the vocabulary terms you are teaching. You don’t want students to be overwhelmed by the number of words they are being taught. But, you want to be selective. I like to start with a catch-all list of terms that are useful for a lesson or unit. I review texts that we will read and look for terms that students will need to know in order to understand the text but that will be difficult to understand using context clues. Then, I cut down the list as much as possible.

For example, when teaching the parts of the cell, I could teach students all of the organelles. Instead, I’ll focus on the ones that are the most relevant to the content. And, I’ll save the other terms for when they are more relevant.

Erin Sadler

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