Teaching Vocabulary in a Science Classroom

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.

Additional Support

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?


Winter Break Meal Prep – Recipe Roundup

This year has been crazy already. In August, I started a new job. New school, new district, new subjects. The district has decided to adopt an integrated model for Middle School Science. Ultimately, I think this is fantastic for our students. However, we still only have non-integrated textbooks and curriculum.

Luckily, they have decided to roll out the integrated model one grade level at a time. And by some strange twist this meant that for the first semester my 7th and 8th grade classes were following the same standards. This allowed me to focus on behavior management.

But when I return from break, my curriculum splits. 7th graders will be learning about photosynthesis and the 8th graders will be focusing on forces and motion. I have a lot of work to do on my life science curriculum, but I taught it for 3 years and feel like I will manage. But physics isn’t a strong suit. In fact, I haven’t taken a physics class since 8th grade. (Strange… I know!)

So, I spent the first week of my break prepping for my 8th grade classes and meal prepping.

I don’t know if meal prepping really belongs on a teacher blog, but I am sure some of you struggle with staying on top of your meal prep and planning the way I struggle with my wardrobe.

I eat a Paleo-ish diet most of the time because I have some chronic stomach issues. (I am not at all strict and often eat white rice and some dairy) However, my family isn’t on board. My daughter is relatively easy to please but my husband is SUPER picky. He is happy to fend for himself, but I try to minimize the damage to his health and our budget by compromising, modifying meals and batch cooking. We don’t always eat the same meal, but we usually eat together and we almost always eat at home.

I am off to my sister’s for the rest of the week, so my remaining prep time is gone. Here is what I put in my freezer this week with links for recipes when available. Let me know if you would like me to create a recipe for any of the meals that don’t have a recipe linked up.


  • Pumpkin Pancakes, Balanced Bites, I made a double batch of these and froze half in stacks of 4. I like these, but B LOVES them. Eggs are one of the few things she refuses to eat but these are egg heavy (cheap protein!) and she doesn’t mind.


  • Paleo Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Muffins, Paleomg– I keep these in the freezer for B to take with her in her lunches. I double the recipe and use it to make 12 regular size muffins. I also cut the amount of maple syrup in half because B doesn’t mind and sugar is no bueno.
  • Crockpot Yogurt, A Year of Slow Cooking– I made the plain yogurt strained it to make Greek style yogurt and then froze it to be used for B’s school lunches. She likes to add frozen blueberries this time of year.
  • Turkey Rice Soup- (no recipe yet) I used the leftover Christmas Turkey to make a soup. This will be emergency lunches for B and I.
  • Chicken Tortilla Soup (Paleo Friendly), me! – More backup lunches or dinners for me. B wasn’t too happy with this one.


  • Meat lovers cheesy lasagna- (no recipe yet) I modify this by using gluten free noodles in mine. This isn’t the BEST option for me, but I made a small one for me just in case I am craving it and froze 3 servings. But I made a bunch of gluten filled lasagna for my husband. This will be great for when I want something he doesn’t like. He can help himself to he freezer.
  • Smokey Bacon Chili, Paleomg– This is really good over a baked sweet potato and my husband likes it over rice. B isn’t picky, she will eat what is available.
  • A Really Good Gumbo, Fed +Fit Book– This includes one of the only veggies my husband will eat… okra. Weird I know. I add some white rice to make this super husband friendly and omit the spicey for B. Everyone will eat this. And if you want husband friendly Paleo food, get this book.
  • Primal Chicken Tikka Masala, Marks Daily Apple– This one isn’t easy, but it is really good and freezes well and satisfies my cravings for take out.

What are some of your favorite freezer meals?

Easy Chicken Tortilla Soup (Paleo Friendly)

Happy New Year!

I cooked like crazy for the whole first week of my winter break and made double batches of everything. I froze so much in hopes of making my life a little easier when I return to work in a week.

This evening I made a quick batch of this easily adaptable soup. I used Siete Foods tortilla chips in mine to make it grain free/Paleo friendly to keep my tummy happy.


  • 1 tsp olive oil
  • 1 onion chopped
  • 1 bell pepper diced
  • 1 cup carrots chopped
  • 1 cup corn (omit for Paleo)
  • 1.5 – 2 lbs chicken thighs, cut into bite sized cubes
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1 tsp chili powder
  • 1 1/2 tsp salt
  • 14 Oz canned fire roasted tomatoes
  • 4 Oz canned mild diced chilies
  • 4 cups chicken broth

Optional Garnish

  • Green onions
  • Cilantro
  • Avocado
  • Chips/ tortilla strips
  • Lime wedges


  1. Heat olive oil in a large pot. Add onions and sauté until they are translucent (about 4 minutes).
  2. Add the garlic a sauté until fragrant. Add in bell peppers and carrots and continue to heat and stir being careful not to allow them to burn.
  3. Add chicken, chilies, tomatoes, cumin, chili powder, salt and broth and bring to a boil.
  4. Reduce the temperature to maintain a slow boil and continue to cook until the carrots are tender (about 20 minutes).
  5. Serve hot and garnish as desired.

Interactive Notebooks: The Best Teaching Tool Ever

I started using an interactive notebook during my second year of teaching.  This is my 10th year using them, and I absolutely LOVE this tool because:

  • It keeps students organized and on the same page (literally!)
  • It cuts down on so much grading time.
  • It helps me organize myself, my plans and the many different subjects that I may be teaching.

Below is absolutely everything about my interactive notebook.

Starting With Your Table of Contents

I start every interactive notebook with a Table of Contents aka the TOC.  I letter the first seven pages (left and right) A-E.  I leave the first page open for a student’s name, doodles, etc and then use pages B-E for my TOC.

I used to print out a TOC and even separate the left and right side like this and even used a new TOC to separate each unit.  However, I think with this, as with everything, it is easier to keep it simple.

I project my TOC every Monday after we complete our vocabulary lesson so that they can update it themselves.  My TOC has 4 columns: page number, date, title and score.  All pages are worth 5 points, unless students complete extension work and then they can earn a 6/5.

The Left Side: Student Input

Below is the grading rubic that I used for this year.  I update it annually and next year to reflect the extra point for extension work.

I have included ideas for students to use to create their own left side activity, but I often provide them with the work.

I require that students use a minimum of 3 different colors for all left side activities because I find that if the color rule is a “sometimes rule” students become confused as to when they are to use color.

When we do a worksheet, observation or practice problems, I remind them that highlighting is useful way to use color.  Students can highlight a worksheet by:

  • Underlining important instructions.
  • Boxing answers.
    • I often encourage them to use a different color for an answer that they are unsure of or that are incorrect.
  • Distinguishing between sections.

The Right Side: The Teacher Side

I use the right side primarily for notes and vocabulary.

All of the notes that we do in my class are Cornell Style.  I write the title, objective and leave room for questions and a summary.  I use a wide-ruled notebook for myself and I write pretty large so students are able to fit their notes all on one page.

This means that all of the notes in my class are VERY short and this forces me to be very concise.  This is also helpful when teaching middle school students who have a tendency to get antsy during teacher directed time.

Additionally, I sometimes have students create their own notes using a Fishbone Worksheet using this worksheet creater.  I outline the notes for them by dividing their reading into sections.  I then divide students into small groups and have them read the text out loud section by section.  They then discuss the main ideas and write them on the diagram.  I differentiate this activity by providing a more extensive outline for students who need a little more assistance.

I also do a short vocabulary lesson every Monday.  We do 8 words each week (with the exception of weeks when we are wrapping up a unit).  This vocab is divided into three columns: term, definition and picture/example.

Link to Left Side/Right Side Instructions on my Teachers Pay Teachers Page

The Index

Students are responsible for keeping track of all vocabulary words in their Index which makes up the final 7 pages of their notebook.  This helps them to refer back to their own notes when they come across a term that they don’t remember. I grade this by randomly selecting 10 words per notebook check. Students switch notebooks and grade each other’s. One point is given for each word present.

I require the index to be organized in this fashion through 9th or 10th grade.  After that, most students are capable of navigating their own notebook.

For higher level courses, such as Chemistry, I use the index to keep track of frequently used tables, charts, etc.


Notebooks are graded about once a month.  I have students switch notebooks and we go through page by page and discuss the grading for each.  This takes about 30 minutes in a middle school class and less than 15 in a high school class and it saves me TONS of time grading.  It also reaffirms what the expectations are.

I always spot check a few notebooks “randomly” especially if the score doesn’t seem to be an accurate description of their effort for that span of time.

What questions do you have about organizing your interactive notebook?