MiddleSchoolPortal/Vocabulary Development

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<keywords content="middle school science best practices vocabulary development teaching strategies differentiating instruction" /> <metadescription content="This free, standards-based, online resource guide developed for middle school science teachers features resources and best practices that help students develop science vocabulary so they are successful in both the content and methods of science." />

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)

Science, like other disciplines, has a specialized vocabulary, encompassing both terms that represent scientific concepts and those that describe process skills. Although science education focuses on inquiry and hands-on experiences, current research shows that teachers must also help students develop vocabulary to be successful in both the content and methods of science.



Background Information

A typical middle or high school science textbook introduces 10-30 vocabulary words per chapter. Students must understand these terms in order to make sense of the new concepts being taught and connect this information to prior knowledge. Some may assume that students will learn vocabulary simply by reading, but one study (Jenkins, Stein, and Wysocki 1984) concluded that without instruction, a student needs to be exposed to a word six times before learning it, making the probability of learning terms through reading quite low. Another study (Swanborn and de Glopper 1999) shows that there are many contributing factors that determine a given student's chance of learning new words in context: the student's ability level, the grade level, and the nature of the text itself (how often new words occur).

It is also important to note that extensive reading is better for general vocabulary development than for content area vocabulary. Thus, while reading does play an important role in vocabulary development, it is clear that students also need explicit, systematic instruction in vocabulary as well as strategies for dealing with unfamiliar terms independently.

While traditional vocabulary instruction involved dictionary definitions and recall, word knowledge is multidimensional. Understanding how a word is used in a variety of contexts and how it fits into a network of related ideas shows ownership and may improve knowledge retention. Teachers should strive to provide vocabulary instruction that promotes authentic and deep knowledge of terms. Luckily, science, with its focus on experiential learning, is an ideal discipline in which to do just that.

Before moving to the next section on Best Practices, let's take a look at the NSDL Strand Map Service. These maps illustrate connections between concepts and across grade levels. Mastery of vocabulary enables effective communication in science. An image of the middle grades (6-8) only part of the Communication Skills map appears below. This map is one of six under the heading Habits of Mind. Clicking on a concept within the maps will show NSDL resources relevant to the concept, as well as information about related AAAS Project 2061 Benchmarks and National Science Education Standards. Move the pink box in the lower right hand corner of the page to see the grades 6-8 learning goals. Boxes that appear to be floating unconnected are connected to concepts in the grade bands above or below grades 6-8. The entire map is visible at Communication Skills. You may also want to view the Detecting Flaws in Arguments map since that requires mastery of vocabulary as well.

Best Practices

Focus instruction on a targeted number of terms. Just because a textbook lists 20 vocabulary words per chapter doesn't necessarily mean that students need to learn all 20 to the same degree. Consider which of the terms are essential for student mastery of the particular content and focus instruction accordingly. Research shows that focusing on words that are critical to the content produces the most powerful learning gains (Stahl and Fairbanks 1986).

Consulting standards and benchmarks may help differentiate between essential and nonessential vocabulary. Your curriculum, state standards, National Science Education Standards, and Benchmarks for Science Literacy all describe what students should know at each grade or grade band. If a term or concept is listed in these documents, you can bet it is an important one!

In Teaching Reading in Social Studies, Science, and Math, Laura Robb (2003) addresses the common question, "Which Words Do I Teach?" She shares a series of questions that help her decide:

Is the word essential for understanding a main concept?
Does the text provide enough support (context, visuals) for students to build word knowledge independently?
Is the word repeated often? Do the repetitions deepen understanding?
Do students have prior knowledge that will aid comprehension?
Is there a word that isn't highlighted that students will struggle with?

Robb also recommends that teachers build word knowledge before, during, and after reading. She recommends that teachers limit the number of preteaching words to 4-5 for middle school students.

Consider both academic and scientific vocabulary. In addition to teaching scientific concepts, vocabulary development helps students become proficient at reading and writing informational text, constructing scientific arguments and evidenced-based claims, and practicing the methods of science. Often, the academic vocabulary (compared to, alternatively, in contrast) can be just as difficult for students as the scientific terms. Providing direct instruction on these types of words will produce learning gains across the content areas. Additionally, science teachers should also take care to include language that represents the methods and process of science: evidence, observe, investigate, classify, and so on.

Provide multiple exposures to the word in context. Each time a student encounters a word, he or she will learn a little bit more about it. Science is an ideal context for rich, authentic, varied, and repeated encounters with words and concepts. Discussions, trade books, multimedia, hands-on experiences, science notebooks, and word walls all combine to produce a flexible and deep understanding of the important vocabulary.

Replace (or supplement) drill-and-practice. Research (as well as teacher experience) shows that the standard vocabulary tasks (copying definitions from the dictionary, generating sentences with vocabulary words in isolation) do not produce meaningful learning. While students do need instruction in how to use a dictionary and practice with words in context, these two activities should not make up the bulk of vocabulary instruction.

Develop nonlinguistic representations. Nonlinguistic, or nonverbal, representations can be powerful tools for student learning. Several studies demonstrate that associating mental images or symbols with vocabulary words leads to increased word knowledge. In Classroom Instruction that Works (2001), the authors present a five-step process for teaching new vocabulary:

1. Provide an explanation or description of the term
2. Provide an image or symbol for the term
3. Ask students to generate their own explanation or description for the term
4. Ask students to create their own image or symbol for the term
5. Periodically ask students to review and revise their explanations and images as needed

Nonlinguistic representations can be created in a variety of ways, including graphic organizers, models, mental images, pictures and pictographs, and kinesthetic activity.

Use graphic organizers. Graphic organizers are a common way to help students create nonlinguistic representations (see above). In the case of vocabulary instruction, concept definition maps, vocabulary concept cards, semantic mapping, semantic features analysis, and Venn diagrams have been shown to be effective in promoting student learning. Teachers should take time to model the thinking processes involved in completing any of these graphic organizers and support students as they do the same.

Vocabulary Concept Cards
Vocabulary concept cards require students to consider words from many different angles, building vocabulary flexibility (the ability to use the same word in different contexts with different meanings). Students write the vocabulary word on one side of an index card or notebook page, and divide the other side into four quadrants. Students fill the four quadrants with (a) what the word is (their own definition), (b) what the word is not, (c) an example, and (d) the definition from a dictionary, textbook, or reader.
Semantic Mapping
Semantic mapping also involves a weblike graphic. Students are given a concept and then brainstorm related words. The teacher and students then work together to develop a map to illustrate the relationships among the words. Teachers can target and highlight words that students must learn (i.e., a vocabulary list). Discussion is an important component of the semantic mapping process as it helps engage all students and support those with limited vocabularies.
Semantic Features Analysis
Semantic features analysis uses a grid to identify characteristics of terms and relationships between terms. The left-side column of the grid lists the (related) vocabulary words, and the top row lists various characteristics (or features) of the words. Students discuss whether the characteristics apply to each word, using a minus sign to indicate no, a plus sign to indicate yes, and a question mark to indicate that it might sometimes be appropriate. Students should be encouraged to add characteristics or vocabulary words as needed during the exercise. Like semantic mapping, features analysis is best accompanied by group or whole-class discussion.
Venn Diagrams
This classic graphic organizer asks students to identify similarities and differences between two terms. In doing so, students explore the relationship between two concepts.

Teach words as networks of related information. An important part of a conceptual understanding of vocabulary is understanding how the terms relate to one another. Two research-based activities help students build connects between words: List-Group-Label and Story Impressions. Teachers may choose to use one or the other, or to combine both strategies as a pre-reading exercise. Teachers should take time to model the thinking processes involved in these activities and support students as they do the same.

In this activity, students group a list of words (chosen by the teacher, a group of students, or individual students) into categories that make sense based on their current understanding of the words. Students identify labels for each category, and may be asked to explain their rationale behind each. This type of activity encourages students to develop conceptual and relational understanding of words, instead of just their definitions.
Story Impressions
In this activity, students are given a list of words of different parts of speech (preselected in order from a passage by the teacher) and work collaboratively to create their own text passages from the list. Students must use the terms in order and exactly as they appear on the list. After groups share and discuss their texts, the class reads and discusses the original passage. (If teachers choose to combine this with List-Group-Label, they should use the same set of words that students have categorized.) It is important to remember that the point of this exercise is to set a purpose for reading and to consider the relationships of target vocabulary, not to create correct text passages.

Focus on vocabulary before, during, and after reading. Instruction and support in vocabulary development should occur at all points in the learning cycle. Before reading from a textbook or trade book, teach selected words that are essential to concept development and likely to give students trouble. While reading, use graphic organizers and discussions to clarify definitions and address questions about other terms. After reading, summarize and extend student learning.

Provide hands-on exploration and experience. Kinesthetic activities can help students develop nonlinguistic representations of terms. These activities can vary widely depending on the concepts and terms being taught. For example, playing a tag game would help students develop a clear understanding of the terms "predator" and "prey." Building and testing circuits can create a robust understanding of terms associated with electricity. The key is to pair these activities with discussions to explicitly connect the experience with the vocabulary and extend students' understanding.

Teach students strategies for vocabulary development. Given the number of words in the English language and in science, it is certain that students will encounter more new words than teachers can possibly teach. It is important to teach students strategies for dealing with these terms instead of skipping them or constantly looking up words in the glossary or dictionary, interrupting the flow of reading. Context clues, word parts (prefixes and suffixes), and root words (typically Greek and Latin) can help students encounter new words with confidence.

These strategies are not unique to science - consider teaching them across all content areas!

Differentiating Instruction

Teachers face a wide range of ability levels in every content area, including science. So how can they promote effective learning for all students? We've shared a few ideas.

Differentiate vocabulary lists. Differentiating instruction helps teachers meet the needs of all students: gifted students, students with learning disabilities, struggling students, and so on. Learning vocabulary terms is one area in which the need for differentiation frequently arises - some students struggle to learn even a few of the terms and definitions while others know the majority of the terms before they're even assigned. One solution is to divide the vocabulary list into three sections: the terms that all students must know to be successful with the content, ones that are helpful, but not essential, and ones that can be considered "enrichment" terms (less frequently used, not as crucial for the comprehension of the passage or chapter). Students who consistently struggle with vocabulary will learn only the essential terms, students on grade-level will learn the essential and helpful terms, and gifted students or those needing extra challenge will work with all the terms. Students on modified lists set goals to gradually increase the number of words they study at a time. Assessment could involve modified versions of the same quiz or test, or any of the alternate assessment ideas described below.

Develop individualized vocabulary lists. Another idea is to allow students to create their own vocabulary lists. Teachers might start with a base list of essential words and ask students to select additional words to complete the list. These lists might vary in length, depending on the student. The advantage of individualized lists is that each student is learning the words that he or she needs to know, based on prior knowledge and ability. The disadvantage, of course, is management and grading. With individualized lists, students cannot simply complete a worksheet or a multiple-choice vocabulary quiz. The section on alternate assessments provides some ideas that can be used in conjunction with individualized lists.

Try alternate assessments. Differentiated or individualized lists call for alternate means of assessment. Teachers could have students draw pictures, write descriptions, or explain the meanings of terms. Teachers could use a simple rubric to assess the degree of mastery of each term or the percentage of terms correct. These rubrics could be then converted to a numerical grade as needed.

For More Information

Strategies for Vocabulary Development provides a teacher-friendly overview of vocabulary research: what works, what doesn't, and what strategies can be used with challenging words.

Teaching Reading in Social Studies, Science, and Math. Laura Robb. 2003. Scholastic Professional Books.

Classroom Instruction That Works: Research-Based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement. Robert Marzano, Debra Pickering, and Jane Pollock. 2001. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

A Handbook for Classroom Instruction That Works. Robert Marzano, Jennifer Norford, Diane Paynter, Debra Pickering, and Barbara Gaddy. 2001. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Linking Science and Literacy in the K-8 Classroom. Edited by Rowena Douglas, Michael P. Klentschy, and Karen Worth, with Wendy Binder. 2006. NSTA Press.

SMARTR: Virtual Learning Experiences for Students

Visit our student site SMARTR to find related science-focused virtual learning experiences for your students! The SMARTR learning experiences were designed both for and by middle school aged students. Students from around the country participated in every stage of SMARTR’s development and each of the learning experiences includes multimedia content including videos, simulations, games and virtual activities.


The FunWorks Visit the FunWorks STEM career website to learn more about a variety of science-related careers (click on the Math link at the bottom of the home page).

National Standards

National Science Education Standards: Science Teaching Standards Teaching Standard A states that teachers "select teaching and assessment strategies that support the development of student understanding and nuture a community of science learners." Using best practices in vocabulary development is one way to support student learning.

National Science Education Standards: Assessment in Science Education Assessment Standard D states that "assessment tasks must be appropriately modified to accommodate the needs of students with physical disabilities, learning disabilities, or limited English proficiency" and that "assessment tasks must be set in a variety of contexts, be engaging to students with different interests and experiences, and must not assume the perspective or experience of a particular gender, racial, or ethnic group." Differentiating instruction and using alternate assessments can meet these standards.

National Science Education Standards: Science Content Standards Focusing on vocabulary development can support any of the Science Content Standards, depending on the concepts addressed.

NCTE/IRA Standards for the English Language Arts Vocabulary development is addressed in standard three, which states, "Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).


Jenkins, J.R., M.L.Stein, and K. Wysocki. 1984. Learning vocabulary through reading. American Educational Research Journal, 21(4), 767-787,

Marzano, R., D. Pickering, and J. Pollock. 2001. Classroom Instruction That Works: Research-Based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Postman, N. 1979. Teaching as a conserving activity. New York: Delacorte.

Robb, L. 2003. Teaching Reading in Social Studies, Science, and Math. Scholastic Professional Books.

Stahl, S.A., and M.M. Fairbanks. 1986. The effects of vocabulary instruction: A model-based meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 56(1), 72-110.

Swanborn, M.S.L. and K. de Glopper, 1999. Incidental word learning while reading: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 69(3), 261-285.

Author and Copyright

Jessica Fries-Gaither is a Science Resource Specialist in the College of Education and Human Ecology, School of Teaching and Learning, at the Ohio State University. She is the Project Director for Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears, an NSF-funded elementary science and literacy project. Jessica has taught middle school science and mathematics as well as the upper elementary grades.

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Copyright July 2009 - The Ohio State University. Last updated September 19, 2010. This material is based upon work supported by the Grant No. 0840824. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.