Teaching Vocabulary

teach vocab blog post-01For a lot of students, I think the hardest thing about science is the vocabulary or the language scientists use in scientific papers, textbooks, or other teaching materials.  Hypothesis?  Endoplasmic Reticulum? Nucleolus vs Nucleus vs Nucleoid?  Chromosome vs Chromatin vs Chromatid?  It can be very hard for students to get these words straight.


Why is vocabulary important?


1.  There is a movement in the science teacher community to de-emphasize vocabulary and focus on concepts.  I do think that it’s important to emphasize the concepts.  Using hours and hours to memorize minute trivial vocabulary is usually as waste of time.  But some vocabulary is essential to truly understanding the concepts.  A lot of scientific vocabulary is used to distinguish between different structures or different ideas.  For example, if students understand the difference between a “nucleus” and a “nucleoid”, they can then understand the biggest difference between eukaryotes and prokaryotes, the main distinction between the two types of life forms found on earth.


2. Another reason why learning scientific vocabulary is important is that students need to be informed enough to be able to understand the news in their local newspaper or online.  Some scientific vocabulary can really help in the future when someone wants to better understand a doctor’s advice or a genetic disorder that is found within their family.


3.  Learning vocabulary is itself a skill.  Often new  terms come up while reading and learning how to decipher a new word from its context is such a key skill to any field a student enters.  Helping students to decipher new scientific vocabulary in the readings they read, whether it be in the textbook or supplementary materials the teacher provides, helps student with their inference and critical reading skills.  These skills are important in the humanities, social studies, and any other field they might end up working in later on.


So how do you teach vocabulary?  Here are a few techniques that I have found successful in the past:


1.  Flash Cards!  Some students of mine have done really well making flash cards for themselves.  I tried making them for the students one year and I think they actually do better if they make the cards themselves.  Now of course this really depends on your class.  Maybe you have a highly motivated bunch who can make their own.  Maybe you are teaching a class with a lot of students with special needs and you feel they could benefit from using ones that you create for your specific units.  You can make vocabulary flash cards for each unit pretty easily using my free task card template that you can find here.  You could type in the terms you want students to remember, print these slides out for each student or group of students, and have your students cut them and fill in the definitions as you meet up with the word in your lesson.


2. Visuals!  Sometimes students hear words like “nucleotide” and “mitochondria” and “polysaccharide” and these words may as well be in Chinese, unless they can SEE what they are talking about.  I think the most helpful thing students could have is a diagram associated with every vocabulary word in a unit in their notebooks.  Pictures help so much!

Some teachers try to save trees and ask students to copy a diagram from the whiteboard into their notebooks .  There are a couple of reasons I don’t like this strategy.  Why?  I couldn’t draw a complex diagram with a pen or pencil if my life depended on it.  I love to create diagrams on the computer and I like to project them so students can see a great diagram instead of a really crummy one that I attempted to draw myself on the whiteboard.  I like to print my diagrams out and give them to my students to write all over, mark-up, highlight, and draw arrows to important details.  If I can’t draw, why would I expect my students to be able to copy a complex diagram correctly?  When I was a student, it was such a relief to just be given a diagram to write on instead of being asked to copy it by hand.

Now some of you are thinking… she doesn’t care about the trees!  But I remind you, that student notebook pages that they take notes on are made of paper too.  If they don’t have their own printed diagram on paper, they are still using paper to draw it themselves.  Or worse.. they might not bother to draw it at all and miss out on the learning benefit altogether.  I have been fortunate to have taught in schools where paper and ink wasn’t limited.  I know not all schools are this way and I would have to get more creative with asking for paper and ink donations if I worked in a school with a quota.

Where do I get the diagrams that I use?  Some of the diagrams I find online.  But the problem with those is that a ton of the diagrams you can find online for biology are either copyrighted (not legal to copy and print in mass quantities) or very grainy when printed.  Diagrams with a lot of shading rarely print well when you’re making 120 copies for your 5 classes.  Recently, I have begun to make my own diagrams for my future classes (when I go back to teaching!)  You can find a free diagram of the endomembrane system here: 

organelle page freebie sample_Page_1


This diagram helps students to connect the golgi apparatus, the endoplasmic reticulum, the nucleus, lysosomes, food vacuoles, and vesicles together by seeing them all in a simple to read and simple to label diagram.  This is a free sample from my giant cells and organelles diagram, reading, and question page bundle.  One of the key features in this diagram bundle is that each reading has a diagram and in the reading, the key vocabulary words are underlined.  Students can read the reading and as they read, they label the diagram with the key vocabulary words, helping them to connect each term with the actual visual representation in the cell.  It contains a reading for the following organelles: Golgi, Endoplasmic Reticulum, Nucleus, Mitochondria, Chloroplast, Lysosomes/Food Vacuoles, Central Vacuole, Cytoskeleton, Cell Wall/Cell Membrane, Basal Body, Centrosome, and Ribosome.  It also includes a plant cell diagram, an animal cell diagram, and a prokaryotic cell diagram.  Every diagram is included with a full page format with labels, with labeling lines, and no labels or lines at all!  You can check it out by going here:

cells and organellesIf you are looking for additional diagrams to show osmosis and other cell transport processes at work, you can find them here.

Cell Transport Unit


What strategies do you use to help students pick up and retain vocabulary?  Please leave a comment below!  I am always looking for new strategies to help students learn.

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