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Learning Vocabulary in Science

Reading, writing, and other communication in science requires the use of unique vocabulary. Teachers need to understand how to make this vocabulary accessible to students and how to have them consistently use it in authentic contexts. Part of disciplinary literacy instruction in science is supporting students in being able to communicate like scientists, which means they need to use the language of science. As detailed in this research-based report from STEM Teaching Tools, you should NOT front load vocabulary and have vocabulary tests, but support students in learning proper terms as they make sense of phenomena and solve problems. Care also has to be taken with vocabulary as students can hide a lack of understanding behind using vocabulary words.

In this brief video-based module, Kevin Anderson narrates a presentation created by Thersea Burzynski, CESA 10 science consultant and Title I Director. The presentation discusses the importance of and ideas for effective vocabulary instruction in science. Below the video player you will find further resources including:

You can download the powerpoint slides here in .pptx format, or here as a pdf

Professional Learning Suggestions and Resources

Ideally, this video will be used within a professional learning community, perhaps as the basis for a department or grade level meeting. We suggest that you stop the video and discuss (and/or personally reflect upon) the questions embedded within the video. The full video is 14 minutes. Watching the video and discussing the questions could take an hour or more depending on time available. The questions can also be found within the transcript of the video.

Before beginning the video, start with a group discussion: how do we ensure students understand important vocabulary terms in our science classes? 

Five 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.  

Further resources

Webinars and further online modules:



For questions about this information, contact Kevin Anderson (608) 266-3319