Teaching Vocabulary in the Science Classroom
I was reading the NSTA Reports (Summer 2012 edition) during breakfast today when I came across the advice column. One of the teachers asked for advice on how to improve his approach towards teaching science vocabulary. Teaching science vocabulary both in implicit and explicit ways, I believe, are very important because vocabulary comprehension leads to higher performance in the classroom.
As a teacher at an urban school, I have many students who vary in their reading levels so finding different ways to teach science vocabulary was one of my challenges this year.
Here are some of the strategies I have used:
At the beginning of the year, I created a visual vocabulary wall out of laminated images. Vocabulary words were printed in English and Spanish.
The visual vocabulary wall was located on the whiteboard wall in the back of my classroom. It was divided into two sections–one for 5th grade, and one for 6th grade. The picture on the left shows a small part of 5th grade’s vocabulary words from our Astronomy unit.
At the end of 2-3 units, students were amazed at the sheer number of science vocabulary words they have learned. They delighted in seeing the entire back wall of the classroom covered in pictures. It worked well for me too because whenever I introduced a new concept, I could point to the associated words on the wall.
The visual vocabulary word wall was also a great way to review for assessments. One of the vocabulary games students liked was “Spotlight”. In “Spotlight”, students were grouped into teams and competed against each other to earn the most points. A definition was projected onto the interactive whiteboard, and students had to use flashlights to “spotlight” the correct vocabulary term on the wall.
As the year progressed, I gave the visual vocabulary word wall over to my students. In small groups, they were given 8×11″ blank sheets and had to draw their own visual representations of the vocabulary words. This was obviously not a neat process, but it gave students more ownership of their learning process and they were very proud to see their artwork on the whiteboard wall. Next year, I would like to introduce students to web20 tools such as Wordle and comic-strip generators so they can have more variety in the ways they create the pictures for the wall.
Later in the year, when I moved to a smaller classroom without a whiteboard wall, I used index cards and markers. I randomly taped the index cards to chart paper to create a type of “graffiti wall” and called it the “Old School Flashcard Wall”. We used it to play review games, where students lined up in teams and ran to the wall to swat at the correct matching vocabulary word with a ruler or (clean) fly swatter.
A visual vocabulary music video
I didn’t use this strategy every term as it was time-consuming, but students liked it a lot when I did. To introduce a new unit, I created a 2-minute self-timed Powerpoint file that flashed all the vocabulary words and their associated images as songs played in the background. One of the popular visual vocabulary music videos was an introduction to scientific inquiry, and it played “She Blinded Me With Science” by Thomas Dolby. They thought it cheesy and entertaining at the same time! This was a lot of fun, and now that I have discovered Animoto, I will definitely use this next year more often.
A vocabulary square or grid
The RTI team introduced the vocabulary square to the staff mid-year for use in our daily packets. The vocabulary square introduces a new vocabulary word, its part of speech, a definition, synonyms, antonyms, and an every day example. This was mostly geared towards other content areas, but I was able to use it in science with some adaptations. Since many science vocabulary are very specific, it was tough for me to find synonyms and antonyms so I changed those parts to include a student-generated drawing and caption.
Students didn’t really like this method, and it took up about 8-10 minutes of instruction time explicitly going over the vocabulary square at the beginning of class. I used the vocabulary square for about two months, until I scrapped it and turned it into the vocabulary grid. The vocabulary grid was a 3-column table in which students had to pick from a list of vocabulary words, write the term, write the definition in their own words, and provide a drawing. Many of my students are visual learners, so the drawing part worked well for them. After a few weeks with this method, I added another column where students had to explain the reasoning behind their drawings and how it helps them remember the vocabulary words. Students didn’t like this at first, but they soon came to realize how thinking about their thinking process helped them retain more of what they have learned in class.
During my student teaching, I was trained in High Quality Sheltered Instruction (HQSI), formerly known as Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol, or SIOP. SIOP comprised classroom strategies that help English Language Learners gain language proficiency and comprehend academic content. One of the strategies I used in the science classroom this year was the tiered-levels of vocabulary.
Using colorful word-strips from the dollar store, I grouped science vocabulary words into three color-coded tiers on a bulletin board. Tier 1 consisted of basic everyday words that required no direct instruction ; Tier 2 consisted of high-frequency words with multiple meanings and; Tier 3 consisted of low-frequency context-specific words aka science vocabulary.
At the beginning of class, I introduced all tiers through a call and response method several times. This was a good way for me to have students get over difficult pronunciations and have them using vocabulary words right away in their conversations.
Later in the year once I was able to obtain a work iPad from the technology director, I chose one of the tier-3 vocabulary words to explicitly teach to the class using the Qwiki app. I projected the app through the interactive whiteboard with an VGA adapter, typed in the vocabulary word, and the app shared a slideshow of images and a definition.
Plans for next year
For next year, I would like to focus more on using common affixes, and root or base words. Pointing out Latin words worked for my beyond-level students, so I think it would really benefit all students if we focused on this throughout the year. I also introduced concept maps late in the year too. Next year I would like to introduce that in the beginning so that I can have students generate their own concept maps for vocabulary words.
What are some other activities and strategies you have used to teach science vocabulary?