Plasma membrane, cell membrane, cellular nucleus, atomic nucleus, solvent, and solute . . .
As a 14-year teacher of science, I know that scientific language holds real power to drive student thinking into new and exciting places. I also know that these same words can send students into a panic, shut them down, and shut them out.
Even worse, the widespread emphasis of vocabulary drilling in science classrooms completely, and to terrible effect, misses the point. When our science classes feel like memorization marathons, who does this approach to teaching and learning hurt? Most decidedly, our English learners. Students already tasked with so much language acquisition must then tackle the world of science language. This emphasis can also land hard on our students with learning disabilities. These students risk falling further and further behind in the face of giant word lists, especially when words must be matched with definitions on the big unit test.
Scientific words come from a long tradition of white European and white American men. The language we teach and learn shouts of these roots: Latin, Greek, with many egos competing for naming privileges, and thus many terms that actually mean the same thing. Students who find this language increasingly detached from the ways they speak at home face the biggest uphill battle to gaining fluency and finding ease with scientific language.
My own highly critical view of science vocabulary instruction began when I started to teach. The words we taught were often more elite versions of everyday vocabulary. Leaf epidermis? Why not leaf skin or surface? Other words came in three versions, all of which were used interchangeably in textbooks and videos. Was that cell structure the Golgi apparatus, Golgi complex, or Golgi body? Yes to all three. And students should probably learn all the variations, just to be safe. Yet more words represented content far beyond the current subject level — “dauer,” “oogenesis,” “zygomatic process.” They might be fun to say and bandy about, but added little to student thinking.
So what to do instead? I began to slash the vocabulary associated with each unit by applying a series of questions as I planned my curriculum:
1. Will this word help students as they think about and discuss the ideas in that unit?
2. Will they have enough opportunities to practice speaking the word for it to become a part of their functional vocabulary?
3. Will it show up again later on in the school year?
4. Is not knowing this word a barrier to accessing material they will use for learning?
If I answered “no” to a word, I considered whether students would see it anyway. If they did (it was a commonly used synonym, for example), I gave students practice recognizing the synonym, but explained that throughout the unit, we would stick to a single term. What might this sound like?
In my inheritance unit, my students researched inheritance patterns in animals and plants. I knew some students wouldn’t infer the meaning of synonyms on their own. So before they started finding their own resources online, I prepared them for new vocabulary.
“We’ve been using the term ‘heterozygous offspring’ — what does it mean? Break down the word with your team and come up with a few examples from our unit.”
After students explored this with their table team and shared out with the class, I followed with: “Do we know the word ‘hybrid’? How is this used?”
Students reliably shared out the term “hybrid car,” and I asked what this word means in the context of cars. Yes, I confirmed, it is when two different systems are used to power a car.
“So do we agree hybrid could mean a ‘mixture of two things’? You will see some stories about crossing animals, like breeding a horse with a donkey, that use the word ‘hybrid.’ Think about your conversations about ‘heterozygous offspring.’ Do you see how it means the same thing as ‘hybrid’? Keep this in mind and don’t let it throw you. But know that in your labs and on your test, I will only expect you to know the word ‘heterozygous.'”
If, during my planning I determined that “yes” a word was foundational for student learning, I assumed complete responsibility for making that word a part of my students’ language. In some cases I taught language roots so they could see patterns and effectively translate when they forgot a meaning. For example, they saw number prefixes a lot (mono-, bi-/di-, and poly-), so we identified what these meant in words we already knew (monopoly, bicycle, dialogue, polygon) and saw how you could use roots to make sense of new words (monosaccharide, bilayer, carbon dioxide, polymerase). In one activity, I gave students an envelope of scientific prefixes and suffixes along with their definitions. They used them to translate scientific words we would use in the cell unit, and they played around with pieces and invented new words using science roots. “Chlorovacuology”? Well, that’s what you’d name the riveting study of things that are both empty and green. And I always kept a Greek and Latin root word dictionary handy too, so I could look up root word translations on the fly and model how I look for patterns and stay curious about meanings.
In all cases, we practiced saying the words out loud. I used small group discussion prompts, animations, diagrams, and brought real-life examples whenever possible, to show them the word in context. They, too, practiced pointing to visuals while they talked. I challenged students to use the word in laboratory writing, in Socratic seminars, in short essays on a test. I also explained to students that giving the meaning could always take the place of a word. If they didn’t remember, they could always draw or describe the idea in place of the word.
Every year on the water and biomolecule test, I asked my students to explain and draw how salt dissolves into water. I encouraged students to include the term “hydration shell” (the way water surrounds substances through an attraction of opposite charges) in their answers, but required a detailed drawing showing what was happening. I knew that some students have an uncanny knack for reciting back terms and words, even in sentences, but, when pressed, may lack any deeper knowledge of the concept. Labeled drawings with written descriptions (with or without advanced vocabulary) tell me much more about student understanding.
I also recited words for my students and had them join me. “We are learning about fruit flies, but there are many, many species of fruit fly. We want to make sure we are talking about the right kind. And this one is called Drosophila melanogaster. You will see this long name many times during this unit, and I don’t want you to be afraid of saying it out loud. So we are going to practice. I’ll say the name three times, slowly, and join me when you’re ready. And we’ll practice tomorrow, too. Dro-so-phi-la mel-an-o-gas-ter . . .”
I also assured them that trying, not perfection, is the point. “How do we say Latin words? Well, did you know that word pronunciation changes over time? And right now, Latin scientific words are said differently from country to country, even though the spelling is the same. I will teach you the most common way it is said here and now, but I’m interested in you saying this word out loud, not saying it perfectly.”
I provided prompts at the start of class to help students practice language. They might, for example, describe their work in lab on the previous day, tasked with saying the names of the equipment they used, or the name of the statistical test we ran. In this way, they could experience how specific language helps us communicate quickly and clearly, but isn’t necessary for getting the ideas across.
And in one unit a year, I take students deep into a research question, to let them experience what science is really like. In one of these projects, my students used an electron microscope to photograph the surfaces of plant pollen. Then they compared the patterns, shapes, and openings they saw on the pollen to help them guess how the plants were related. In this work my students became comfortable with the bizarre language of pollen textures (clavate, reticulate, and echinate, to name a few), which accurately communicates all the bumpy, pocketed, and mazelike patterns they observed. I pushed them to use these advanced words in their writing, and showed how knowledge of specialized vocabulary opens the door to understanding peer-reviewed papers. As they started to scan and decode the work of scientists, they, I hoped, started to see how this specialized language allows us to communicate with increased accuracy. That said, I described how, when I was working in science, I knew the language of my own field well, but could barely understand papers published in other fields of biology. I explained the real need to know how to translate your work into everyday language, especially if you want your ideas and discoveries to be understood by a broader audience.
Language, Students, Power
As we shift our classrooms to more student-focused and hands-on learning, facilitating positive peer interactions becomes central to our work as teachers. And here too, language use needs to be addressed and supported. Students with fast scientific language acquisition can easily dominate the conversation on student teams and, even if it is unintentional, can lead to other students feeling insecure and falling silent. These power dynamics and status problems can exacerbate racial, gender, learning, and linguistic differences between students. So the question is: How can we as teachers intervene?
Before students begin group conversations, I identify something complex and open-ended for a discussion. For example, why have both sexual and asexual forms of reproduction evolved? Why do some organisms reproduce both ways, while others are specialized? Before I let them talk, students write down their thoughts and questions. It is important to give space to one’s own ideas before they are overwhelmed with the ideas of others. Protocols are also important during talk time: Each person shares before open discussion is allowed. But before they begin, I explained why we need to talk about science and what we gain from listening to each other. “In science, we understand that we need a community. As individuals, we are limited. You may feel confident that you completely understand something, but I promise that someone else will understand the same idea in a different, equally valid way. Gaining these perspectives makes our thinking more complex and interesting. Each person on your team brings valuable ideas, so share your thinking, but also really listen to each other. Pay attention to how your thinking changes and expands as you listen.”
Science educators often identify their true “science students” as those who can memorize, recite, and follow procedures with the greatest speed and accuracy. We assume, for example, that if a student is fast at balancing chemistry equations, they are cut out for science. But time and again, I have seen that students who don’t closely identify with science often ask genuinely thrilling questions, generate exciting ideas for experiments, make startling connections, and tackle experimental analyses in fresh and necessary ways. We must sincerely believe that each individual in our classrooms is a potential “science student,” and it is our responsibility to find that and draw it out. I remind myself that strong scientific vocabulary is sometimes a bit of a red herring, so I seek the ideas and thinking that underlie what students are saying. And better yet, I want to help my students develop the same listening skills: Can they recognize the genius in one another?
Beyond gaining skills to use scientific language, there is a deeper analysis that is also needed in our classrooms. Although I haven’t done this enough, students should critically analyze the use, misuse, and absence of science words in our world. When and why is the language of climate change removed from government documents and textbooks? How and to what effect has scientific vocabulary been used to justify the oppression and dehumanization of people? When does scientific language create a false and dishonest separation between humans and other species? In learning to use scientific language, students should explore the power that comes with it.
Science classrooms are also environments that can too easily promote the feeling that science is that thing over there, in that other time, done by those people who aren’t like me. By being alert to all the ways language works in our science classrooms, how it might create barriers, kill natural interest, and deepen inequities, we can see the small and large ways that our curriculum can be different, and more useful and more real, than what we experienced when we were in school.
All this talk of vocabulary is really about focusing our science teaching efforts on a few major goals: making scientific language manageable and meaningful to our students; recognizing and sharing the power of language; and connecting our classroom work to that natural, human curiosity that hums inside of every young person. This requires a fundamental reframing of how we view science education. This also has the potential to change the way our science classrooms feel to students, allowing each to see that their stories, lives, questions, and ideas belong at school, especially when it is time to talk about science.