How to Teach Scientific Vocabulary

How many times have you evaluated a sample of student's work and seen the words "stuff" or "things".  Do you let it slide or do you address the issue? I hope you address this - imagine how using those words would go over when defending a thesis?!

I'm here to help with teaching your students subject-specific vocabulary. I use this for my Science and Physics classes, but you can apply these strategies to the subjects that you teach.  Here are some ways that you can help your students improve their understanding of vocabulary terms.

1. Use the terms frequently.
YOU have to use these terms, especially with new vocabulary, students have to read and hear how to properly use the terms.  When teaching, frequently use the new terms in your own speech. Avoid using pronouns when you can: "The malignant cancer cells travel through the body," is far more powerful than "They travel through the body."

2. Students must use the words frequently.
I am all about having students talk in class.  I love academic conversations and cooperative learning because they are so effective at increasing engagement and understanding. Here are some strategies to use to get your students using the new vocabulary terms:

3. Repeat the word after hearing it for the first time.  
Say the word and have them repeat, pretty simple, right?  What this does is get them pronouncing the word properly so they are not hesitant to use it in the future.  Sure, they may not have a problem pronouncing nucleus but it is good to practice xylem, organism and, most importantly, Uranus.  Heck, we even practice how to properly pronounce "nuclear". New-Clear. Thanks for eating up my class time, Homer!

4. Don't settle for less that excellence in conversation and writing.  
When students are responding to questions demand that they use the proper terms throughout their answer. "What is the role of the Golgi apparatus in the cell?" should not be answers with something so simple as "they produce mucus and remove waste.". No - "The Golgi apparatus is responsible for packaging proteins" is much more powerful.  It shows are better understanding.  Train your students to use the proper terms throughout their response. I love a "Level Up" or "Bump it up" chart for this purpose.  Practice with your students how to improve their response.  Here is an example from my classroom:

5. Practice often.  
Entrance cards, exit cards task cards, conferences, observations, academic conversations.  Give your students opportunities to use these terms.  Don't just use matching or multiple choice questions on practice quizzes - have questions where student have to demonstrate their ability to communicate with scientific terminology. Yes, they take longer to mark. Your students are worth your time.

6. Review.  
My favorite way to review vocabulary before a test is with domino puzzles.  These are far more effective than crossword puzzles and word searches are just a waste of time in my opinion.  Why are domino puzzles superior to the worksheet-style vocabulary reviews?  Plenty of reasons:

Word searches only ask the students to identify a word. Identification is not enough. We need to demand understanding.

Crossword puzzles demand some more understanding, so they are certainly better than word searches. But there are some caveats.  

Crossword puzzles have students fit words into blanks.  Well, when you're dealing with terms like "homogenous", "heterogenous", "solution", "alloy" and "gas" I think you'll agree it is really easy to figure out which term goes where without too much thought about the clue.  Don’t get me started on word banks...

Crossword puzzles are once-and-done.  The student does it once, and regardless of how long it took to solve the puzzle they have a mentality that they now are fluent with the terminology.  Very rarely would you see a student revisiting a crossword puzzle.

Domino puzzles, however, require more brain power to solve while still being a fun way to review.  Puzzles can cover as many terms as you have in your unit.  Usually I make puzzles with anywhere from 15-25 terms for the unit.  Each piece has two sides and students have to match terms to their definitions on different pieces.  
Why they're great:
1. They demand more than just term identification.
2. They utilize keywords to connect the term to the definition.  This helps with decoding.
3. They are hands-on.
4. They can be (and very often are) revisited by students practicing terms.
5. They can be used throughout the unit, not just at the end.
6. They can address common misconceptions between similar terms, for example "meteor", "meteoroid", "meteorite" without using the length of the term as a clue.
7. They can be cooperative or individual.  My students will often try to solve them together the first time and get into great conversations of why they think this term matches that definition and not the other one. Then they bring them home and continue to practice.
8. They can be friendly or competitive.  My students like when I see who can solve these kinds of puzzles first. Of course, accuracy is most important.

9. They are fun! Different, novel items like domino puzzles are a change of pace from most regular classroom review materials.  Plus, printing them on colored paper makes them easy to find!
10. They are versatile. Print and laminate a few copies for your classroom (I always used colored paper) or send one home with each student. Use them as centers or use them as homework.

I invite you to try these strategies in your classroom.  I have a number of domino puzzles that I use in my Science classes available in my TpT shop including:
Plant Part Terms - It's free!
Astronomy Terms -It's free!
I'm always adding more as I create but I do take special requests!

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