More On Building Vocabulary

By Fred Arnold

Vocabulary is central to science. Science terms identify concepts and ideas that have come out of students' scientific observations. We know that students must master the vocabulary to be successful and to have deep understanding of the concepts. To do this, students must make the words their own. How can we help our students develop the deeper understandings they need? 


One useful strategy is called Word Expert Cards. As terms come up during a science unit, the teacher can recruit individual students to develop Word Expert Cards for each specific word. In this approach, the teacher provides the student with a definition of the term or assists the student in creating a definition. Then:

  • The student writes the word and definition on one side of a 3" x 5" card.
  • The student creates a sentence using the word, which is approved for accuracy by the teacher and then written below the definition.
  • On the other side of the card, the student writes the word again and draws a picture to represent its meaning.
  • Finally, the student adds his or her name beneath the picture.
  • As the unit of study progresses, the student who produced the card is consulted whenever a question about this term arises. He or she is the expert, the reference resource to help other students develop an understanding of that particular term. 
Another vocabulary development strategy that can be used during a science unit is a writing exercise called Semantic Impressions. A Semantic Impressions story is usually written as a small group activity. The group is challenged to use all the words listed, in order, as they write a paragraph or story. Once each word has been used, it can be used again but no additional word from the list can be used until the next one on the list has appeared. Any form of a word can be used - plural or singular, any tense or part of speech. To ensure that students understand the word as it is used in science, the teacher or class can develop a simplified dictionary definition for each before writing begins. The completed story can be read by and discussed with the rest of the class. The goal is that the Semantic Impressions piece should help anyone reading it to have a better understanding of the terms. 

Semantic Impressions writing encourages more creativity than having students write each word in a sentence. The interaction resulting from group writing can assist the entire group in increasing its understanding of the vocabulary and concepts. Editing of the draft produced can further drive home mastery as well as reinforce writing skills. 

ELA vocabulary development strategies do not replace hands-on science activities. They do play a role in helping students process what they are doing in science so that they get the most out of the activities. Using ELA vocabulary development strategies and even ELA instruction time for science vocabulary can make a powerful contribution to student learning in both disciplines.
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