Why words matter in Science.

As many of you may be aware, I have an unrelenting passion for language and literacy in science. So I thought that I would bite the bullet and start to share some of my ideas and thoughts behind such an important area that not only underpins every aspect of science teaching, but can easily be translated across different subject disciplines. The aim of this piece is to consider vocabulary as the foundation that all other areas of literacy depend upon.

text on shelf
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Ideas to think about…

  • Why is vocabulary important in science teaching?
  • How can teachers model effective use of language?
  • Why is it important to teach students the conceptual links between key terms in science?

“Science educators are also to some extent language teachers and that the learning of Science is like learning a whole new language”.

Wellington and Osborne (2001)


Science has its own distinctive vocabulary and this allows our students to make meaning of the world around them and understand the complex nature of the subject.

“Biology is not plants and animals. It is language about plants and animals…

Astronomy is not planets and stars. It is a way of talking about planets and stars”.

Neil Postman 1979 – Teaching as a conserving activity

Cell structure and function is usually taught in two to three lessons in year 7 science, lets consider the key terms used: cell, cell surface membrane, cell wall (cellulose), chlorophyll, chloroplast, cytoplasm, mitochondria (respiration), nucleus and vacuoleNot only do students have to recognise the structures listed, they also need to name them and understand the functions of the structures within a cell. This vocabulary is known as tier 3  vocabulary, low frequency domain specific words.

tier-1-2-3.jpg (1650×1275)

BECK, I. L., MCKEOWN, M. G., & KUCAN, L. (2002). Bringing words to life: robust vocabulary instruction. New York, Guilford Press

We as teachers may then introduce the term tissue – defined in biology as a group of similar cells working together for a specific function. Tissue is an example of tier 3 vocabulary in biology, a domain specific word, however, the vast majority of year 7 students will be familiar with the word tissue and its everyday meaning as a tier 1 word, a thin piece of paper like material that you blow your nose on. Here we have an example of how confusion in science can arise due to the scientific meaning of words everyday use other examples are weight, energy and power- this can ultimately lead to students developing misconceptions.

So how can we introduce key vocabulary in science? Many of us will have the keywords displayed at the beginning of a lesson and encourage students to write down the meaning of the words in their exercise books. However, as we know this can take a considerable amount of time and with the pressure to teach the content and concepts we as teachers a limited in the time that we can allocate to this. I would also argue that this is not always the best way to embed the deep understanding of the word so that students can become fluent in the language of science and build this into their schema.

Model correct use of tier 3 vocabulary

Science teachers need to ensure that they explicitly model correct use of science specific language see the example below from Effective strategies for teaching science vocabulary (Sarah Carrier)

Student: “We put this smooth powder in the bag along with the crunchy powder and the bag blew up and got hot.”

Teacher: “We mixed baking soda and calcium chloride with water resulting in a gas, and heat was released.”

Scientist: “The combination of baking soda and calcium chloride is an exothermic reaction with the products of sodium chloride, calcium carbonate, and carbon dioxide.”

 It is vital that in our instruction that we encourage students to talk about science using the correct tier 3 vocabulary. This may also involve looking at the keyword in the context of the sentence or paragraph so they are aware that the keyword is science specific rather than tier 1 ‘everyday’ language.  This dialogue between the teacher and the students can reinforce the dichotomy of words like power, energy, weight having different means in different contexts.

In summary explicit teaching of tier 3 vocabulary in science is vital for students to gain a deep understanding of the science being taught. To reinforce the learning of vocabulary think about breaking down the words into roots and explain these and to further embed the language of science encourage students to link the words conceptually.

Two books I would recommend are:

  • Language and literacy in science education by Jerry Wellington and Jonathan Osborne – this is a fantastic book that explores the importance of explicitly teaching the language of science.
  • Closing the vocabulary gap by Alex Quigley – This book is a must read for all secondary teachers, it’s a very accessible book that highlights the importance of vocabulary in all aspects of education.


Further reading:








Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s