6 Top Tips For Teaching Scientific Terminology

6 Top Tips For Teaching Scientific Terminology

Posted on 14-Sep-2016 19:00:00 by Olivia Sumpter

Last year, my Year 10 English class was tasked with writing an essay that justified the global elimination of one hateful thing. Many wrote about how they would ban homework; some wrote about eliminating flying insects. Sam* wrote about biology. “I hate it so much Miss,” he said when I remonstrated with him, “It’s a whole new language.” Sam was already learning a new language – English. He was a quick learner and spoke English brilliantly but, in his mind, the language of biology represented a new frontier, one he wasn’t quite ready to meet yet. This is what Isabel Beck calls Tier 3 vocabulary, words that are low frequency and context- specific. Read more about her research here.

His essay was actually really thought-provoking. How are students expected to learn all this new language? If we come across a tricky word in English, one or two students may have seen it somewhere before, but how regularly does a Year 8 student come across ‘chromosome’ or ‘respiration’ in their wider reading. I’m pretty sure Diary of a Wimpy Kid doesn’t include them…

So how do science teachers go about teaching this new language that Sam found so daunting? There are hundreds of different techniques out there and, varied though they are, they all share one common idea: Definitions don’t suffice. Plus, if you’re bored of going through your long key word list, chances are your students are too.

“The curriculum is massive; I haven’t got enough time with them to teach them the ‘subject content’ let alone spend time on language.” I’ve heard this cry from the science department (and every other department in the school) on many occasions, and it’s true, no teacher has much time to spare. But the key misapprehension here is that those two elements are distinct. 

For Sam and students like him, it wasn’t the abstract ideas or ‘subject content’ that was particularly baffling, it was the language stuck on to those ideas that made the learning seem inaccessible. 

David is a science teacher at Oriel High School in Crawley and over the past year, has been focusing on this area of his practice. He asks his classes to add to their keyword booklet in each lesson. (Important tip from him: get them to make a pocket in their books to keep the booklet in!) He starts the lesson by introducing the keyword and then at the end of the lesson, students use the booklet to record and extend their learning.  They add images, analogies, synonyms, antonyms and example sentences, all with the aim of creating a more nuanced understanding of the key terms. (Have a read of a 'How to...' guide if this sounds like a strategy you could use.)

However, as David also mentions, when students are only really using these new words in their science lessons, it's a challenge to ensure they are remembered.

To this end, here are some classroom strategies to help you approach the teaching and long term retention of new terms:

6 top tips for teaching scientific terminology

  1. Preselection

As we mentioned before, time is not necessarily on our side. So don’t waste a single precious second on teaching students language they already know. Preselecting terms is key here. Look ahead to the next week of learning and consider which terms you think might prove tricky and then ask the students.


You could use a grid like the one above, or you could use a continuum in the classroom, where you place a word on the board then ask students to place themselves along the continuum depending on their understanding. It takes a few minutes to plan but it will save you time in the long run.


  1. Whole to Part

Number 2 is simple. Everything you read about learning new language highlights the importance of context. Don’t start your lesson with isolated terms and a definition match-up, give the students a piece of text that uses the terms in context and once they’ve seen it as part of a whole, then break it down in to its constituent parts.


  1. The root of it all

Looking at prefixes, suffixes and roots is a helpful way in to the learning. It also has the added advantage of allowing you to make links with ‘stuff the students already know.’ (For example, let’s look at the prefix ‘hetero’ meaning different. Heterosexuals are attracted to members of a different sex, therefore heterogenous means…). Because so many scientific terms share similar parts, the more prefixes and suffixes the students are familiar with, the less daunting new terminology will be. It’s learning that gives and gives. Why not ask students to design a root word display for your classroom wall or science corridor?


If your display is looking a bit empty, read about why we should all be thinking about the language we use in displays around school.

  1. Trading Cards

There are many games you could play with trading cards. Here’s one idea. As you move through a unit and come across new key terms, ask students to design trading cards to represent the new concepts. On the front, they write the key term and draw a related image. On the back they write a description, plus two key points.


Students are split into two teams. Both teams have the same number of students. Team A can only look at the term and picture side. Team B can only look at the description side. Students from Team B might ask ‘Who has a type of energy that comes from the Earth?’ Students from Team A might ask, ‘Who has a description of Geothermal energy?’ Once everyone has found their partner, students can switch trading cards.


  1. Justified Lists

One of the things Sam found difficult about biology was that even when he thought he understood a concept, he didn’t feel he had the language to explain himself. This isn’t a problem particular to science or to EAL students, we hear this all of the time. “I get it, I just don’t know how to explain it.” Asking students to justify something is a really good way of encouraging students to practice that tricky process and it works really well in a scheme of work on variation or classification.



Which image does not belong under this title and why?

Students will pick out the building here without too much trouble. What will be interesting is their explanations. You might hear variations on “It’s not a living thing,” at which point, you can ask them what they think an organism is. It shouldn’t be too much of a leap from there to ask the students to devise their own description of the term ‘organism’ and they’ve learnt a term without you having to do much at all!

  1. Play games

Just yesterday I received an email from the form tutor of a student who was already worried about learning new science terms. She is in year 8 and we’ve only been back at school for a week. If anything can demystify new vocabulary and make it less daunting, surely it’s worth a try; nobody learns well when they’re nervous. So here are some vocabulary games that you could alter or amend to suit your purpose.

Charades – split the class into teams. Each team has a word list. Players take it in turns to act out each word for the rest of their team to guess. Even though you might think ‘photosynthesis’ is impossible to act out, asking students to do this will really test their understanding of the term! Give it a go!

Taboo – split the class into teams. Write the new word at the top of a piece of paper and below write 5 obvious words that describe your new word. These words are taboo; the students cannot use them. The student must describe the new word in another way. Their team guesses the word.

Bullseye – this one is fun because students get to throw things at the board! Write your new terms on different pieces of A4 paper. Scrunch the paper into balls and place in a big pot. Bring the image of a bullseye up on the board, or draw one on a whiteboard. The different rings of the bullseye represent different challenges and a different amount of points up for grabs. Students throw the word ball, teacher notes where it landed on the target, then the student goes and opens the ball up to see which new word they are working with. Depending on where the ball landed, the question is different. The tasks get progressively harder as you move towards the centre. So, for example, if the student throws a word ball and it lands in the outer ring, they would have to come up with a sentence that uses that word, if the word ball lands right on the bullseye, they must come up with a definition or description for that word. You can play this in teams and add up the points as you go.

Bingo – Students have a bingo card with 9 new words on. As you give clues (a mixture of descriptions, images, metaphors etc.) they cross off the words on their card and shout bingo as soon as they have crossed off all of their new words!

Jeopardy – You give the answer and the students have to buzz in with the ‘correct’ question. You’ve got two options for your answer. You could say the new term, e.g. “heterogeneous” and the students would have to say something along the lines of “which adjective describes something that is different?” OR you could say “this adjective describes something that is different” for which the correct question would be “what does heterogeneous mean?”

If you’ve got some great ideas for teaching new science terms, we’d love to hear from you. Get in touch via twitter @bedr0cklearning or send as an email at hello@bedrocklearning.org.


Happy Teaching!

 How to Teach Vocabulary Effectively

Topics: Reading, Vocabulary