Haven’t We Got Enough To Do Already? Why Science Teachers Should Teach Vocabulary and How to Make it Stick


There are words in the English language that science teachers wish the English department would teach – words like process, appropriate and monitor. We don’t expect anyone else to teach scientific vocabulary such as photosynthesis and nucleus, but if someone (English teachers?) could teach all of the rest, that would be great.

bitesize sankey
Tier 2 words: summarise, process, involved, x rather than y. http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/gcsebitesize/science/aqa_pre_2011/energy/heatrev5.shtml

Worse luck – it doesn’t work that way. If you want your students to be able to read science textbooks and understand exam questions, teaching this sophisticated, but non-specialist vocabulary is down to you.

Specialists call these words tier 2. Here is my strategy for teaching tier 2 words in science.

Using Cognitive Psychology to Teach Vocabulary

In the past, I might tell students what a word meant once and then assume they had learnt it. Now I know better. If I want students to know a word, I expect to spend time teaching it. If I don’t invest a little time spread over several sessions, I would have been wiser to say nothing.

Typically in science lessons, I spend less that ten minutes per lesson on vocabulary, mixing tier 2 words with subject specific words. I assume I will need to revisit words at least five times before most learners have internalised the meaning. Below is my basic 10 minute plan – I have explained the activities below. (The hyperlinks will take you to an explanation of the cognitive psychology behind the activities).

Introduce new words Practice the new words Develop understanding of words (Elaborate) Practice previous words:

Spaced practice/ interleaving/ retrieval practice

Careful explanations / dual coding. Concrete examples gap fill It’s all about me! similar/different Multiple choice / gap fill / labelling diagram etc.

Introduce New Words

I read the questions and texts I want to use in class as part of my lesson preparation, highlighting any tier 2 words that I think my students will find useful in future science reading. I prepare a decent explanation for each word – sometimes a simile is enough, but usually an explanation is better. For example:

process: a series of actions or steps taken in order to achieve a particular end. (oxforddictionaries.com)

Dual coding is an activity from cognitive psychology, combining diagrams with text. It is an effective way to teach some types of word.

Concrete Examples

Definitions and explanations are a decent starting point, but they won’t stick in the memory without example sentences. I get my student to read them aloud to each other. It goes in better. For example:

  • Plants convert sunlight into chemical energy using a process called photosynthesis.
  • Heat is transferred through metals by a process called conduction.
  • The Haber process converts nitrogen and hydrogen into ammonia.
  • Several types of energy transfer take place in a process.

Tier 2 words: summarise, process, involved, x rather than y. http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/gcsebitesize/science/aqa_pre_2011/energy/heatrev5.shtml

Practice Using the Words

Concrete Example Sentences

Match the word to the sentence:

process By adding an __________ catalyst, the rate of reaction will be increased.
appropriate When you ___________ a text, you prioritise the key ideas.
summarise The _________ of transferring heat by passing on vibrations is called conduction.



I use an activity called “It’s-all-about-me” again from cognitive psychology. I ask students to use the target word in a sentence about themselves. For example:

Describe your process of getting ready to go out.

What is your process for making breakfast?

What is your process for making your bed?

I then use a technique called similar/different to develop my students’ understanding of the word. I have a template for this that my students are familiar with. Below is an example:

different similar different

____________ ____________ ____________

____________ ____________ ____________ ____________ ____________ ____________

____________ ____________ ____________


____________ ____________ ____________


____________ ____________ ____________

____________ ____________ ____________ ____________ ____________ ____________

____________ ____________ ____________

The students find similarities and differences between the two words.

Practicing Previous Words

I know from long experience that this is still not enough for many students. They need practice. I keep a record of the tier 2 words we have learnt (a sheet of lined A4 paper blu-tacked to the wall).

To save time, I mix science vocabulary in with the tier 2 words. I use use gap-fill activities, multiple choice questions and ask students to label diagrams. Often this is my lesson starter.

I hope I haven’t made this sound hard work. It isn’t really; once I’ve trained my students, it’s all very pacy. I use templates so I just have to fill in words and print. I use a stop-clock to keep the pressure on. And I find it saves me a lot of time later on.

In my next blog I will describe how I use the same techniques to teach and practice science terminology.


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