Science Vocabulary Instruction

Reliance on standardized tests has increased dramatically over the past few decades, as witnessed by sales that grew from $7 million in 1955 to more than $267 million in 1997 ( than ever, there is pressure on schools and teachers to demonstrate success based on the ability of their students to score well on these assessments. Critics point out that standardized tests are only one way to evaluate the academic and intellectual skills of students. They further complain that there is too often a mismatch between the stated goals for student skills and the skills tested.


It makes sense to evaluate a child’s reading ability with a test consisting of information that must be read. The connection between science skills and the current method of testing, however, is not so simple. Certainly there is a connection between proficiency in reading and success in science, but there are many other important skills in science that are difficult or impossible to test on a standard, multiple-choice test. Language skills may be one component of a successful scientist, but trying to assess a student’s mastery of science with a test of language ability is like trying to assess the cooking skills of a pastry chef by determining whether or not he can break eggs.

The unfortunate outcome is that many schools and teachers ignore fostering the development of important science process skills in favor of trying to teach students science vocabulary. Worse yet, the approach taken in many classrooms does not reflect best practices. Two problems I see are first, the words we choose to teach, and second, the way we choose to teach them.


The Words We Teach

Let’s face it. Science is full of some pretty awesome vocabulary. Many of us were attracted to science in the first place because of the cool words. As teachers, we love these terms and sometimes are a bit overzealous in our attempts to make sure kids know them all, whether or not they are appropriate. Let’s take some examples from what I know best, elementary science in Texas. The words “igneous,” “metamorphic,” “potential,” and “kinetic” are not in the state standards for elementary science in Texas because it was decided these terms refer to concepts inappropriate or unnecessary for students at this level. However, these words are commonly included in lists of words that teachers are responsible for teaching to fifth-graders in this state. Let me be clear, I am not saying that the students should not learn the words because they are not on the test. I am saying that before we blame the test for our vocabulary lists, let’s be better informed. Many times teachers insist that they are teaching vocabulary because it is “in the standards” or “on the test” when, in reality, no such pressure exists.

While the science test obviously has a number of words particular to science content, the vast majority of the words on the test are not “science” words. Certainly students need to be exposed to the technical vocabulary necessary to discuss science experiences encountered in the classroom, but they have a greater need to learn the thousands of other “regular” words needed to express themselves and understand others in everyday communication. Many of the questions on the science test are written so a student can arrive at a correct answer without understanding or even, at times, reading the “science” word. Let’s take an example.


Let’s suppose a student understands the underlying concept, but can’t recall what is meant by “sedimentary.” All is not lost. Get rid of the word “sedimentary” and the question we are left with is, “Which rock layer is the oldest?” The question is now answerable.


In other cases, the meaning of the word can be determined from context clues. The point is that students will always encounter words on the test they do not know, and rather than trying to anticipate all the science vocabulary they might encounter, a better strategy, perhaps, is to provide kids with the skills necessary to read a question and determine an answer without knowing all the words. These are skills that will serve them far beyond the test environment.


The Way We Teach the Words

pic3cjblogUnfortunately, schools often approach science as if it were preparation for a quiz show. Students memorize facts and explanations others have previously discovered, rather than making discoveries of their own. A large part of this memorization consists of vocabulary. This gives students a distorted view of science that can have gravely negative repercussions. In many cases, students come to believe that science is boring and, for those who are not skilled at memorization, too difficult.

The average six-year-old has a productive vocabulary (can use words proficiently) of 2,600 words and a receptive vocabulary (can understand words) of 20,000 to 24,000 words (

Virtually, all these words were learned in the most effective and natural way, in the context of real-world experiences. Parents do not, before taking their toddler to the park, the grocery store or the zoo, hand the child a list of words and definitions for the things they might encounter there. They give the child an experience that establishes a need for words, and then they provide words as the child needs them.

In science classrooms, on the other hand, a different approach is all too common. Words and their definitions are frequently introduced to students before they have had any experience with the phenomenon to which these words are applied. This practice is so widespread that its efficacy is not even questioned, despite it’s running counter to language acquisition theory and common experience.

I would like to point out what I see as one of the main drawbacks to a heavy emphasis on direct instruction in science vocabulary as it relates to student success on the test. Regardless of whether direct instruction is efficacious, it does send a clear message to students that understanding vocabulary is important. In fact, students begin to accept the beliefs of their teachers that, unless they have a clear understanding of every science term on the test, they are doomed to failure. This leads to a situation in which test-takers who encounter an unknown word simply make no attempt to answer the question or guess blindly. In this way, teaching science vocabulary by direct instruction can possibly have the exact opposite of the desired effect, resulting in students doing more poorly than if they had received no instruction.

The best strategy, I believe, is to help students formulate a procedure for answering questions that contain words they don’t recognize. This strategy promises to be more useful than trying to teach all possible words because, no matter what words we teach, there will always be words on the test that we failed to cover.





One Response to “Science Vocabulary Instruction”

  1. Terry Talley

    CJ, Thanks for a great blog! Traditions are pretty hard to change. What might be some ways to help teachers to work through their belief that vocabulary should start a lesson in science?


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