Vocabulary Development and Literacy

It was interesting to watch Mr. Rodriguez and his class as they tackled the new concept of magnetism. Students sat at tables in groups of four with magnets and a variety of objects. There were a number of English language learners, among 25 third graders, who were busily talking among themselves in their native languages. Everyone was trying to find the words that would describe how the magnets reacted to each other and the objects on the table. They were most fascinated by how some of the magnets were pushed away when other magnets came in close proximity.

Mr. Rodriquez’ options in how to proceed in this learning situation were weighing on his mind. As a former seventh grade science teacher, my mind also raced with the options I might have chosen. I was delightfully surprised when he decided to ask the students if they had ever seen that happen before―when two objects are near each other, but then quickly move apart. Students began to talk about collisions, bumping into each other in PE, and bouncing balls but not movement apart when a force is not applied to either object.

He said this was a special kind of motion caused by a force that surrounded a magnet and that only magnetic objects had that force. The teacher then demonstrated the movement, asking what it is called. The students began to call out words settling on “being pushed apart.”

At that moment, he introduced the word “repel.” He was very animated as he used his hands to show that movement and then had students repeat the word while making the same movement with their hands. He used the word again as he moved one magnet with the other.

But then, he turned the magnet around and asked the students if they were going to see the magnets repel again. Many made predictions that it would and were surprised to see it didn’t happen. So he asked them to tell him what happened and they told him “they moved together and that one magnet pulled the other towards it.” He then introduced the term “attract.” Magnets can attract some objects and not others. They can also attract each other sometimes. Mr. Rodriguez made animated gestures with his hands moving towards each other; he asked his students to repeat his actions and use the word attract as they were acting out the motion.

At that point, he asked his students to figure out if they could predict when two magnets will repel each other and when they will attract. The conversations were lively and very animated with the gestures they were just taught. Students were using the words repel and attract to predict and describe the motions they were causing to occur. He had them use the magnets to see if they were right.

To finish up the lesson he brought out a trade book about magnets and read it aloud to his students. There were many illustrations of magnets and he asked lots of questions throughout the book. Many of the answers the students gave involved the use of gestures to show the motion of the magnets. At the conclusion of the book he brought out some picture vocabulary cards and shared how the words attract and repel were spelled.

He concluded the science lesson by asking his students to draw and write about the motion magnets caused. He reminded them about having learned the words push and pull in a previous lesson and asked for them to use those words as well as attract and repel as they wrote about their observations with the magnets.

As we debriefed the lesson, we talked about the vocabulary and literacy strategies he considered when planning the unit, knowing the vocabulary would be new to some of his students. Some of the strategies he listed but chose not to use included:

  • Reading the book to his students first, talking about the list of vocabulary words they were going to learn, and having students illustrate the words in their notebooks prior to the investigation.
  • Placing vocabulary words with pictures up on the word wall before reading the book so they would have something to reference while doing the investigation.
  • Demonstrating the push and pull of magnets and telling them the terms to use when they get to do the investigation.

As a constructivist teacher, he said he decided to provide an opportunity for them to explore this real-world phenomenon before giving them the vocabulary or even reading about it, so they would be curious, inquisitive, and motivated to learn more.

The sequence of introducing the scientific terminology is important in allowing students to make meaning of their observations and in the learning of new scientific concepts. In our rush to make sure we cover the standards and reinforce vocabulary skills, we can shortcut the process students need to take apart their misconceptions and rebuild their science understanding through experiences and learning through text.

I would like to invite you to visit STEMcoach.com to learn more strategies for the benefit of your students and to look through our STEM resources that include vocabulary development. There are several videos and resources that have a few ideas you might want to try to promote the literacy skills for yourself and your students.

Have you had similar experiences? As comments to the blog this month, share with us your ideas and experiences bringing new strategies into the science classroom and in preparing a student-centered learning environment! I hope Talley’s Take becomes a place where you and others can share your thinking about being a STEM teacher; a place where you can comment and ask questions about what others find to be highly effective strategies for teaching in STEM content fields. I look forward to your comments!


Terry Talley, Ed.D.

STEMcoach in Action!



One Response to “Vocabulary Development and Literacy”

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>