Boosting science vocabulary

Each chapter in my science textbook is loaded with new vocabulary. How can I help students to deal with this specialized vocabulary?
—Dan, Ramapo, New Jersey

This task can be overwhelming. High school texts may have more than 3,000 specialized terms! We want our students to understand and use this vocabulary to communicate their comprehension of science concepts, but the sheer number of words plus the lack of background knowledge in younger or less experienced students makes it a challenge. Vocabulary is also a key component of reading comprehension.
Traditionally, students were required to copy definitions of words. They may have been challenged to put the definitions “in their own words.” Their vocabulary knowledge was assessed by objective tests. The students’ superficial knowledge of the words was soon replaced by blank stares when they encountered the words again.
We may think all terms are important, but based on the work of researchers such as Marzano and Pickering (in their book Building Academic Vocabulary), I’d suggest for each unit, you distill the list in the textbook to words that are critical: those important to understanding the unit’s essential concepts, those applicable to other units, and those specifically mentioned in your state’s standards. You could have a supplemental list of “nice to know” words and words students should already know. For example, in a unit on plants at the upper elementary level, photosynthesis may be an essential term. At the secondary level, it could be on the review list. Ideally and for consistency, these lists would be agreed upon by all teachers of a given subject or grade level. Students should be able to see these words on a designated wall in the classroom or a page in their notebooks. In addition to formal “definitions,” ask students to create a graphic representation of the word. To explain jet propulsion, for instance, one of my students drew a picture of a squid taking in water through a siphon and squirting it back out. I think he got it!
Graphic organizers can also be an effective way for students to become familiar with words. For descriptions, see the Graphic Organizers and Frayer Model websites.
We often assume students know how to use context clues in the text to figure out a word’s meaning, but many may need some assistance. I often showed students how knowing some common affixes and root/base words can help in figuring out what a word means. When my students first encountered the word “unicellular,” I pointed out that “uni-” means “one,” and we brainstormed other words that started with “uni” and were related to “one.” (The website Prefixes and Suffixes can help you identify some relevant ones to share).
I found students need to hear and say the words, not only read and write them. I had students repeat the words several times aloud, emphasizing the syllables by tapping them out.
Many students enjoy word games, which can help them explore and review vocabulary. Creating metaphors and analogies and playing games based on Jeopardy, Password, or Pictionary are enjoyable ways to explore and review words. (This Vocabulary website has ideas for word games and strategies.) However, I would question the value of word searches or word scrambles in helping students use words or understand their meaning.
Rather than relying on an objective test, you can assess students’ knowledge and use of vocabulary in other interesting ways. One of my favorites is a “word splash.” Using a prepared word list or one the students generate, have them write sentences including two or more of the words they’re exploring. In “word sorts,” give groups of students lists of words to categorize. The discussions they have are interesting and informative.

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