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. And I surely 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.
But 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 or even avoid vocabulary terms all together.
I think that is a missed opportunity. Check out this old-ish, but still relevant article that talks about the importance of focusing on vocabulary to close achievement gaps.
Most language acquisition experts suggest focusing on tier 2 words. These are high frequency words used across academic disciplines (construct, analyze, verify, etc) and by selecting these terms teachers can maximize the effect on student achievement.
I try to select the following types of terms:
- Applicable tier 2 words: substance, consist, property
- High frequency science words: atom, compound, mixture, protein
- Words that have dual meanings in order to avoid confusion and make connections: yield (that roadway sign that isn’t quite a stop sign or the amount that you produce)
- Prefixes, suffixes and root words that can help students to decode more complex vocabulary: hetero-/homo- , hypo- / hyper-/ iso-
I try to avoid:
- Tier 1 words (the easy ones they probably already know): bi/di (kids always know these!),
- Infrequently used science words: metalloid, electron transport chain
- Note: I am a huge liar. I chose the word metalloid this year. (What was I thinking?!?!) It wasn’t a good choice and it will go away before next year.
Many of these terms will be repeats for the kids. However, the goal isn’t only for them to understand the meaning of the word (though that is vital!). The real goal is to get them to use these words in their writing. And if by some miracle they use these words in a class discussion…… HOOORAY! That shows the strongest level of comfort with the terminology.
How many words?
I teach 8 words a week unless we are ending a unit and reviewing material. Why 8?
- 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 in our interactive notebook.
- It doesn’t take up much of my instructional time. My 8th graders get through the vocab lessons in about 20 minutes.
- At some point in 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.
Also, I teach the words every Monday. The kids complain, but they actually like the routine. I try to simplify the definition as much as possible and provide either a definition or a picture.
Notebooks and Grading
We keep these in the right side of our interactive notebook, since I am the one doing most of the talking/creating. I provide 8 terms, 8 definitions and 8 pictures or examples. The pictures must be colored and they are required to have 3 colors. This pages (as all pages in my notebook) is worth 5 points. Here is the scale:
5 – Complete, pictures in color
4- Complete, missing color
3- Missing pictures, all terms and definitions present
2 – Missing some terms/ definitions
1 – Missing several terms/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.
I always add the vocabulary to my Quizlet account so that it is available to my students. They can study the vocabulary using an app or a Chromebook. This also adds a layer of accessibility for absent students, special education, English language learners and students with visual impairments.
I offer all resource students a copy of the Vocab that they can tape or glue in their notebook. I usually copy the Vocab before including drawing the pictures and writing the examples and make the student responsible for that one piece. This option is also available for student who have a hard time writing the material quickly. I have a few students who get the entire vocab set with the pictures and they may be responsible for coloring or highlighting the vocab.
When to Teach the Vocab
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 am not taking away their “AHA!” moment.
What role does vocabulary play in your science classroom?