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How to Support Vocabulary Building in Science Classes

With carefully crafted statements that incorporate vocabulary and prompt discussion, students learn scientific terms and concepts more readily.

February 2, 2021
Physics teacher works with a small group of students
Bob Daemmrich / Alamy Stock Photo

As a high school science teacher, I’ve found that posing true/false statements to my students is one of the best ways to help them build their scientific vocabulary and stimulate discussion. When I construct the statements strategically, my students’ learning is more natural and their retention is more enduring—and they become more curious about the content they’re learning.

The end result is better student engagement—engagement that is rooted in conversation, collaboration, and exploration rather than lecturing, no matter the subject.

Statements to Build Vocabulary

Teachers used to be taught to front-load instruction with vocabulary—for example, by assigning students to write definitions from a textbook glossary before a lesson. But there’s no advantage to asking students to memorize and parrot terms ahead of time if they have no context with which to process them.

The current Next Generation Science Standards focus on learning science vocabulary as the discovery happens. For example, a student isn’t told that condensation is “the conversion of a vapor or gas to a liquid” but rather discovers this while experiencing the phenomenon of water droplets forming on the outside of a glass of ice water on a hot day.

Even within this practice, students may need extra time to practice vocabulary terms so that they understand them in the context of discussions or lessons. Once students have had a chance to see and work with a concept, it can be helpful to take time to review and provide them a chance to have discourse using all those new terms.

This is where the true/false statements can be helpful. Following up on the example above, if I taught states of matter in a physics class, I would pose these true/false statements to build vocabulary:

  • It is possible for a substance to undergo evaporation and change from a liquid into a gas.
  • Sublimation is only possible when there is a decrease in temperature.
  • Condensation and evaporation could be considered opposites of each other.

Within the context of a true/false statement, students can better detect meaning (e.g., evaporationsublimation, and condensation) and simultaneously test their comprehension of concepts.

Statements to Prompt Discussion

When you use true/false statements to prompt discussion, students can engage in discourse about meaning and conceptual ideas, and they have opportunities to collaborate to learn, independent of teacher intervention. This approach also gives the teacher insight into the thought processes of students and identifies any misconceptions or common errors that might need follow-up.

Create statements: Stick to one or two words for each numbered statement. Again, taking from physics just as an example, if the students are learning about impulse, make a list of statements only dealing with impulse, like these:

  • A longer time of impact results in a higher impulse.
  • Impulse can only change if net force changes.
  • A change in momentum will cause a change in impulse.
  • If an object increases velocity, this will cause a change in impulse.
  • Impulse is equal to change in momentum.
  • Impulse can be measured in kg*m/s.

All of these statements require students to think conceptually about what impulse means. They also require students to consider other vocabulary terms, such as velocity and momentum.

The best statements have additional vocabulary terms mixed in that play key roles in whether the statement is true or false. For example, “Impulse requires a change in net force” is a better discussion statement than “If time changes, impulse changes.” The concept of net force requires a deeper understanding that extends outside of the given vocabulary term.

Also, keep your true/false statements conceptual. If you mix calculations into these statements, students take that as a prompt to start independent work, and they are not as engaged in a conversation, which is part of the goal of the activity.

Prepare for and launch group discussions: Give students time to summarize before the activity. Asking students to make a list of key ideas related to the topic captured in the true/false statements is a good way to evaluate where they are at. Scanning for any major misconceptions and immediately dispelling them is also beneficial.

You can use sticky notes and read through them, or allow students to share with each other as they work through online tools like sticky notes on a Google Jamboard, Padlet, or a discussion board.

When you launch the discussion, require a consensus and use larger groups than you might typically create for collaboration. I put six to eight students in each group to lessen the chances that one or two students dominate. Telling each group that members need to come to the same conclusion (“true” or “false”) forces students to talk to each other and defend their answers. This is where the processing really happens, particularly in the moments when they use all the vocabulary words they have experienced in class activities in their group discussions.

In my experience, during these discussions, students start to consider every word and describe the meaning of those words to each other over and over. That repetition really helps. When evaluating statements on forces, for example, I repeatedly overheard students telling each other that “acceleration” means there is a “net force.” These are big ideas that summarize key concepts.

Launch full class discussion: To discuss the results, ask one group to start with their first true statement and open it up for class discussion. Some good questions to help guide discussion might be “What would need to change to make this statement true?” and “Explain your thinking behind marking this statement as true.” Again, the group effort matters here because no one individual is called out if they get it wrong and because hearing directly from groups of students, each of which has formed a shared impression (including comprehension), can help you assess comprehension and refine ensuing activities and lessons accordingly.

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  • Literacy
  • Collaborative Learning
  • Critical Thinking
  • Student Engagement
  • Science
  • 9-12 High School

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