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How to Teach Science Vocabulary

January 18, 2021

Traditional Science Vocabulary Instruction Before NGSS

Traditionally, teachers provide vocabulary lessons at the beginning of the unit. Known as front loading, this strategy assumes that students will understand those terms when they see them in the context of your unit.

The problems with front loading.

Typically, students did not memorize the vocabulary when it was taught at the start of the unit. Therefore, this strategy didn't improve student outcomes.

Also, when students did memorize the definition, they didn't understand the meaning of the words. Terms are less meaningful when taught out of context.

Memorization Over Meaning

In the pre-NGSS classroom, vocabulary activities emphasized memorization over developing a deep understanding of the concepts behind the definition. Also, this strategy leads to classes that over-emphasize vocabulary instead of the understanding of content.

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.

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. Keep in mind, this isn't the only way to teach mutualism. Instead, its 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 straight forward interaction. 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

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