Developing Scientific Vocabulary

3 November 2018

According to the EEF’s Improving Secondary Science report, there are “consistent and strong correlations between pupils’ literacy skills and their success in learning science, and literacy interventions have shown impacts on science outcomes.” That’s why recommendation 6 of the report (develop scientific vocabulary and support pupils to read and write about science) is so important. In this post, we focus on the first part of that recommendation – how to develop scientific vocabulary.

Carefully select the vocabulary to teach and focus on the most tricky words

When it comes to learning new words in general, most words are learnt from context and not through direct instruction. A single encounter with a word will be unlikely to ensure full and rich knowledge. ‘Knowing a word’ starts from knowing just the sense of a word e.g. that ‘obnoxious’ has negative connotations.Students can then know a word in a particular context so they may know the word ‘argument’ in the sense of two people arguing but not in the sense of someone stating a case.They may then know what the word means but be unable to readily access it to use in writing.Then finally a student can have a full and rich knowledge of a word and ability to use it in a range of contexts. So when we talk about ‘teaching a word’, we are actually just incrementally increasing students’ knowledge of that word.

In Science, this idea of multiple previous encounters of a word can be problematic as words can often have a different meaning in science than in everyday English. It is these words that can have multiple meanings in multiple contexts that we should focus on. The following examples are given in the report:

Incident/ Complex/ Spontaneous/ Relevant/ Valid/ Composition/ Emit/ Random

Let’s take as an example, the word ‘catalyst’ and one pupil’s possible experience of this. In her English lesson, she learns that Mercutio’s death is the catalyst for Romeo’s descent into vengeance and that the visit of Jacob Marley acts as a catalyst for Scrooge’s redemption. Then she arrives at history and is informed that the assassination of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand was a catalyst for World War 1. At this point, her understanding of this word is that a catalyst is an ‘inciting incident’ and that a catalyst is a thing that starts a chain reaction of events. Then, when she encounters this word in science, she thinks that she understands it: a catalyst in science must be a thing that starts a chain of events. While there is a notion of understanding here that can be addressed, discussed and shaped, it is conceptually wrong.

Explore root words and morphology

The root is the primary lexical unit of a word, the basic part of a word which gives the main meaning of that word e.g. heat in preheat or heater. We then create new words by adding prefixes, suffixes etc. An understanding of root words is beneficial in learning new scientific vocabulary. Science is a subject where etymology matters, and a knowledge of how scientific words are built can help students to understand unfamiliar words and allow them to link to words and concepts they are already familiar with. The simple example given in the report is ‘photosynthesis’.

Further activity can develop by linking to other words with these morphemes e.g. photon, synapse, synchronise, hypothesis. There are many common Greek and Latin sources for words in our language. For example, think of how many words/ concepts have the Greek root therme, meaning heat. You could even try and identify meaning by looking at the way the word pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis is constructed! The Online Etymology Dictionary is a great site for exploring the roots of words further.

Science lessons are not vocabulary lessons, but we can definitely take the opportunities to explore vocabulary where they arise.

Find out more about this recommendation and the other 6 by attending our free twilight session on November 20th at Beckfoot School: 



Posted on 3 November 2018
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