Defining moments

7th June 2013 at 01:00
Help students to learn - and understand - scientific vocabulary

Modern Foreign language teachers in England expect their students to learn 2,000 new words in 400 hours of teaching: five words an hour. But the science curriculum expects students to acquire 2,500 words in 300 hours of teaching: eight words every 60 minutes. And things are only going to get tougher after the introduction of a more rigorous national curriculum in 2014, which places even greater emphasis on learning the correct scientific terms.

In addition to teaching the individual words, the new challenge will be helping children to understand the rich scientific vocabulary needed to comprehend and develop scientific concepts. Nobody wants students to simply regurgitate jargon that they don't understand.

But a scientific vocabulary is meaningless if the words are not connected to actual scientific processes and skills. One man who has been fighting this battle for years is William Hirst, a retired science teacher who believes that students become disenchanted with science because the language is so foreign to them.

To rekindle their interest, he has produced two sets of resources: William's Words in Science, a science dictionary, and William's Word Games for Cells, a collection of activities and puzzles designed to familiarise students with vocabulary relevant to the study of cells.

"I had the idea, which was not unique to me, that science is a foreign language and as such needed a dictionary," Hirst says. "The available dictionaries were not suitable as they ranged from the facile to the arcane, so I wrote one that covers all the words encountered at key stage 3 (ages 11-14) science and provided the meanings specific to school science in an accessible way for young learners."

These days, students can find most information on Google. But Hirst believes that they are unlikely to remember how to spell words when a computer, with predictive text, has instantly found what they are looking for. Using a real dictionary, on the other hand, develops student literacy skills at various levels and reinforces the correct spelling of complex scientific words.

Some of the resources in William's Word Games for Cells have been uploaded to the TES Connect website by Wordy William (Hirst's username).

TES science adviser Alessio Bernardelli says: "I have rarely found such a wealth of engaging and effective strategies for developing literacy and understanding of scientific terms."

For more information, go to bit.lyWordyWilliam. To order William's Words in Science, go to To see more of William's Word Games for Cells, go to

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