A mentor once told me, “Science vocabulary is like a foreign language to students.” And it’s the truth! Students struggle with scientific terminology because they don’t use the words in everyday conversation. That’s why vocabulary is the foundation of my science lessons, and it should be for yours too. It’s impossible to expect students to understand a concept when you are using words they don’t understand. If you haven’t made vocabulary a priority in your science classroom yet, it’s time to rethink your strategy.
Simple Strategies for Building Science Vocabulary Skills
Make Monday “Vocabulary Day”
I have incorporated target vocabulary words every week since my first year teaching science. I went through and looked at the science standards for each unit, made a list of corresponding vocabulary, and broke the list up into weekly lessons for the entire year.
Every Monday, I take about 25 minutes to “lecture” the students. I project the words with definitions and pictures. The students copy and illustrate while we discuss and brainstorm examples. At the same time, I make sure to elaborate on the words and weave them into a summary of the unit we will be tackling for the week.
I have a printed template that we use, and all of their vocabulary is kept together in a folder creatively named, “The Vocabulary Folder”. It takes us about 10 minutes to set this up the first week of school, but the benefits last all year.
The weekly vocabulary routine allows for student confidence and success the rest of the week. Plus, they have a personal glossary on hand to refer back to when it’s time to study for benchmarks and state testing.
Make Homework Vocabulary Based
I have never been a big fan of homework, but my school strongly encourages us to have a weekly activity for the students to take home. Rather than assign worksheets that many parents often struggle to help with, I decided to use it as an opportunity to strengthen our vocabulary foundation.
My students use the vocabulary words assigned on Monday to complete the homework assignments of their choice. They simply cut the menu out and keep it glued on the front page of their homework journal so they always have it.
I can honestly say my students love the variety this offers, and my homework completion percentage is almost 100% since I incorporated student choice. It is an assignment they can do independently with ease, plus it makes a GREAT early finisher assignment.
Make Science Vocabulary Part of the Conversation
Remember earlier when I mentioned that students struggle with science words because they simply don’t use them every day? Change that! Use the vocabulary words in both conversational and unexpected ways.
For example, my students go through three stations per class. When it is time to stand up and transition, I always say “revolve” instead of “rotate”, to illustrate the difference. The first time we practice transitions at the beginning of each year, I always make a big deal out of it and demonstrate how it would look if we were, in fact, rotating around the room rather than revolving.
If we’re working on circuits, I will ask a student to go “open the circuit” for the lights when we need to turn them off. On the playground, I always point out Newton’s Laws in action….The point is, I do this so often that the students have actually caught on and started doing it too. Just the other day, one of my 6th graders got so excited to show me how much “luster” her shoes have.
Teach Students How to Decode Unfamiliar Words
When I teach vocabulary, I look for any and ALL opportunities to point out how a prefix, root word, and suffix can all give major clues to what the word means. I also like to point out commonly used Latin words so they begin to recognize them when they see them independently.
Example #1: hydrophobic
Most students already easily identify hydro with water, and many will also know the word “phobia” and relate it to phobic.
Example #2: thermococcus
While learning about classifying life and taxonomy, we often come across some pretty strange genus and species names. Take thermococcus gamatelerans, an awesome archaea. The first time I say it, most students do a double take. I ask them what they can figure out about this organism just from the name. Most can identify that thermo is heat related. Students that REALLY paid attention will recall that coccus is one of the shapes we learned to describe bacteria and other unicellular organisms. Just like that, they already know two things about this organism. It likes heat and it is spherical!
Also, don’t forget to activate prior knowledge during vocabulary day discussions. Relate new concepts to previously learned concepts.
This week we are learning about the difference between scientific fact and scientific theory to prepare for understanding the Theory of Plate Tectonics. Scientific facts are the smaller pieces of information that build much larger ideas contained within scientific theories. I can easily relate this to the prior week’s unit about the rock cycle. Facts are the sediments, and theories are the rocks!
Make simple connections to help your students solidify the big picture in their minds.
I can’t tell you how exciting it is for me when they point out science in real life using the words we have learned. I think making our students understand that science is everywhere and part of everything is the key to mastering the content instead of just memorizing it.
What strategies do you utilize to strengthen vocabulary skills in your students? Leave me a comment below!
I have all vocabulary units available for 6th grade science, and I JUST FINISHED updating the entire physical science unit for STREAMLINED TEKS. Check it out here. I will be updating the rest over the summer!