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Vocabulary has been a long standing constant in science educations. It is the easy content check and assessable aspect of any and every unit. Thinking is changing around vocabulary and that's great due to assessment and the NRC Framework. There aren't as many resources out and available given that it is not directly tied to an SEP, CCC, or DCI, but rather dusted throughout the standards. We know that students need to have access to the language to be able to use the language. However, a vocabulary matching part of a test or quiz really tells us what? Students using words without a concrete conceptual understanding just makes them good at the academic game. It is easier for a student to hide a lack of understanding by using the vocabulary words you say are important, even if they don't really understand them. 

*You will often find strategies and supports specific for ESL students to support language acquisition, but truthfully these are best practices for all students when learning new words and connecting vocabulary to concepts/experiences. 

Kevin Anderson shares 5 Big Tips for teaching vocabulary in science

  1. Students work with vocabulary in meaningful ways - They use them as they do science. For example, instead of a traditional word wall, they might have an interactive "model wall" with scientific models annotated with proper vocabulary. Teachers support, encourage, and/or require students to use proper terms as they ask questions, design experiments, and argue with evidence.

  2. Students receive specific instruction on the scientific vocabulary - They connect terms to previous learning, as well as concrete and multimedia resources. Students meaningfully categorize new terms. They're not going to fully understand and retain the terms just by reading about them, copying down their definition, or hearing the teacher use them. 

  3. Teachers support students in properly using “tier 2” scientific vocabulary - Some such terms are evidence, analyze, explanation, prediction, infer, and environment. These academic words have unique applications for science, and should be taught along with “tier 3” science-specific vocabulary, such as endosperm, magma, and ion. 

  4. The classroom is full of text options for students to use as needed - Scientific journals, trade-books, online resources, fun science books, listening stations, etc. permeate the classroom. 

  5. All classroom communications emphasize use of scientific vocabulary - Students talk to each other and write frequently, using new terms. Teachers allow students to do more of the communication happening in the classroom, with guided time to reflect on and "chunk" new terms and learning.  

Major takeaway: Students should engage in the activity before grasping the concept, and have an understanding/engage in sensemaking of the concept before vocabulary.  (most often) This means we are not front loading, nor are we handing out a vocabulary list, nor requiring all to make flashcards.


I use this example a lot when addressing vocabulary. When students are "learning about magnetism" and non-touching forces. In the past, we might have front loaded: poles, attract, repel. Now, imagine a student has to grasp the difference, when do they have to delineate between attract and repel? Next, they read a book which confirms the vocabulary they were told. They are tasked with memorizing. Instead, students are exploring with magnets, they feel the pull of the magnets, they can feel that sometimes they can't make the magnets touch, we then discuss how there are non-touching forces happening. Later the teacher provides language to help explain the concept. In which scenario do you think students will remember and be able to connect to future learning? 

Activity before concept before vocabulary





How will you shift your approach to vocabulary? Even if you have moved away from the matching or vocabulary test, we can always do more. When thinking about assessment, we should be striving toward multi-dimensional questions, but vocabulary only tests the DCI and often in a way that can be misleading of true depth of understanding (hopefully you caught that through your previous tasks). 

What words are absolutely essential to the unit? 

How will you scaffold their understanding? Are there words that are needed before others? 

What strategies will you offer students to help them in language acquisition? 

What ways will you make language visible in your classroom? 

How will your assessment items require the knowledge of vocabulary terms to answer a multi-dimensional question? 


Begin a shift in your instruction! For this module, make some plans to think about 

- vocabulary introduction and quantity

- student engagement with the language

- visible features in your classroom

- multi-dimensional assessment questions beyond the vocab test


For credit in this model, share a google doc with me ( that

1. outlines how you have approached vocabulary in the past

2. shifts you plan to make

3. examples of these shifts (can be a narrative or photos or sharing an assessment - before and after)


MAKE SURE THAT YOU CLICK THE BOX TO NOTIFY ME, THIS WILL PROMPT AN EMAIL. I will not be scrolling through "Shared with me" to hunt for it.


This can be a tricky topic with our ELA friends. Many feel as though all vocabulary should be front-loaded and accessible to students from the beginning - that language is not something be withheld or kept from students. Is there an ESL specialist in your building to discuss specific strategies? 

REFLECT Many science teachers are tasked with supporting school wide goals in comprehension and other reading strategies, often including vocabulary. Given your learning on this topic, how might you contribute? What information can you share with your administrator about approaching vocabulary in science? 

SHARE your learning and shifts in thinking on this, and have a discussion about how language is approached within your team, department, or grade level.

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