How to Teach Science Vocabulary

January 18, 2021

In this episode, Nicole VanTassel shares an exclusive training on teaching science vocabulary in your NGSS classroom – staying true to exploration and discovery while still supporting vocabulary acquisition.

Traditional Science Vocabulary Instruction Before NGSS

Traditionally, teachers provide vocabulary lessons at the beginning of the unit. Known as front loading, this strategy ensures that students have already seen the term when they encounter it in context. The hope is that this leads to a better understanding of the term.

Why You Shouldn’t Front Load Science Vocabulary

While it’s easy to understand the reasons behind this strategy, it isn’t the best strategy for teaching science vocabulary.


This approach fails to use the explore-before-explain strategy. We know that by giving students a chance to explore before they are presented with information, we are provided them with an important context. This context helps them form a superior understanding of science content.

Also, even if students know the definition of a science term, they are unlikely to understand the meaning without the context. When vocabulary is front-loaded, students are only memorizing a definition. They don’t actually understand what it means.

In the pre-NGSS classroom, vocabulary activities emphasized memorization over developing a deep understanding of the concepts behind the definition.

Front-loading might be okay for other subjects, but not for science.

In science, students rarely have the background knowledge required to truly understand definitions prior to the unit. In other subject, new vocabulary is synonymous with language that students have already developed.

For example, when teaching students the word devastated, they are likely to know synonyms like heartbroken or overwhelmed. But students are not likely to have prior knowledge about a term like photosynthesis prior to entering their 7th grade live science class.

Traditional activities overemphasize the importance of science vocabulary.

It’s also important to note that the significance of science vocabulary has been over-emphasized in traditional classrooms. Often, science tests are really vocabulary quizzes in disguise.

As we make the shift to 3D learning, it’s important that students are developing strong scientific literacy. They should understand the practice of science and how scientific discoveries are made. In order to do this, we need to de-emphasize vocabulary in our instruction and our 3D assessments.

Using an Explore-before-Explain Approach to Teaching Vocabulary in an NGSS Classroom

We aren’t just teaching a new word in a science class. Instead, we are also teaching a concept. In order to improve student understanding of terms, you must teach the concept first.

But, how do we teach the concept without the terminology? We do it through exploration.

Using Community Interactions to Teach Terms

Let’s take a look at how to teach a concept like mutualism. Instead, it’s an example of how to teach this concept, and the term through exploration.

Provide your students with interactions within an ecological community. It’s important that these are straightforward interactions. For example, the lion kills and eats the zebra. Or, bees collect nectar from flowers and spread pollen from flower to flower as they go. Be careful not to state who benefits who is helped or harmed from the interaction.

Students take the stack of cards and sort them by identifying patterns. (This is also a great way to include a Crosscutting Concept!) Through this card sort activity, they develop an idea about the concept of mutualism and other community relationships.

After students understand this concept, then you can give them the terms to describe these relationships.

Use traditional vocabulary tools after exploration.

Once students understand the concept behind the term, its okay to pull in those more traditional vocabulary lessons. For example, allow students to see the term in a reading assignment. Or, use the Frayer Model to emphasize the meaning of the term.

More Science Vocabulary Strategies that Work

Here are a few additional strategies to try:

  • Make sure that you introduce terms in context. Nothing makes sense out of context.
  • Use sentence starters and sentence frames to help students use the terminology appropriately.
  • Have students revise their original understanding of a concept using the terms after they are introduced.
  • Use questions to help clarify student understanding.
  • Providing new examples of the same term or concept.
  • Encourage students to use the terms in their vocabulary.

Learn more about Vocabulary in an NGSS Class

Check out these resources: