Four ways to teach scientific vocabulary at primary level

12th June 2017 at 15:01
A primary science specialist shares her tips for helping children get to grips with the tricky vocabulary of science topics

Helping children to understand how to use a vast array of unfamiliar technical vocabulary is one of the many challenges of teaching primary science effectively.

Many words will be entirely new to children and some that are familiar will have different meanings to their everyday use — "weight", "material", "diet" and "chemical", to name a few.

How can we make this new and confusing vocabulary stick? A few small tweaks to the way you teach new scientific terminology can make a big difference.

1. Teach actions alongside words

As any experienced phonics teacher will tell you, teaching an action alongside a word helps to make it memorable. The main benefit of applying this technique when teaching scientific vocabulary is that the action can be associated with the meaning of the word. This means that each time the word is spoken alongside the action, children are getting a quick reminder of its meaning.

For example, the word "precipitation" could be accompanied by wiggling your fingers to indicate rain, while "reflection" could be a fist bouncing off an outstretched palm just as light bounces off objects. These actions will be even more memorable if the children have come up with them themselves (under your guidance, of course), and collecting ideas for new actions can provide a good assessment opportunity to see who understands different terms.

2. Add some detail to your displays

Science displays with topic vocabulary on colourful cards are a familiar sight in the primary classroom, but for the display to be of any use, children need more than just the words themselves. Words should be displayed with a definition that the class has come up with as they learnt the meaning of the word (again with some careful guidance), written out by a member of the class.

Even better, you could add a photo of a child carrying out the agreed action for each term alongside the word, or a drawing or diagram done by a child that illustrates the word.

3. Play with the words

Vocabulary games are generally low or no-prep activities which children will enjoy. Use scientific vocabulary that the class has already learned to play in games such as Charades or I Spy.

One particular favourite of mine is a spin on the game Articulate, in which teams have to guess a word being described without using specified words related to it; for example, a child may have to get their team to guess the word skeleton without using the words "bone", "skull", "support" or "body". This is also another sneaky way of getting in some formative assessment.

4. Keep them around

It’s a good idea to keep a permanent reminder of vocabulary from past topics to hand, by creating your very own scientific dictionary. When you move on to a new science module and take down the old vocabulary display, put the display materials into a class book for future reference.

As you already have the materials ready, it is incredibly easy to make and will be a popular addition to your book corner because it contains the children’s own work.

Use a ring binder so that new entries can be filed alphabetically – an honour you could bestow on some eager scientists-in-training in your class. This class dictionary could even follow the class through school and be added to each year, giving children a very personal and relevant record of all the vocabulary they have learned throughout their time in primary school.

Kathryn Horan is a college fellow for Primary Science Teacher Trust and a national expert STEM teacher at Greenhill Primary School in Leeds.

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