Deepening student understanding of content-area vocabulary through targeted strategies.

by Barbara Walton-Faria

Grades 3-5, Grades 6-8, Grades 9-12


If you don’t understand the vocabulary of science it, you can’t communicate science to others. In many other subject areas, you can read something and more or less gain an understanding of it. In science, you have to understand the vocabulary first before you can understand the science.

In my district, we were very intentional about which vocabulary would be essential for students to know at each grade level and in each science subject. We also designed a set of activities that are specifically meant to get the students to interact with the vocabulary.

I front load each lesson with a vocabulary section that is very interactive. We use vocabulary boxes where students write definitions in their own words, draw pictures that explain the word, and identify related words.

I build this emphasis on vocabulary into my classroom and eventually students internalize the meaning of the words and use them correctly, consistently. And that clears the way to better critical analysis of the content and a higher level of discussion about science concepts and processes.


What I did well…

When I am attending or planning professional development, an important attribute of any presenter is their ability to connect the skill or process to the classroom in three basic ways; first, the practice must be grounded in educational research, second, the practice should be applicable in a classroom with a diverse group of learners, and third, the benefits of the practice must outweigh the time it will take to initiate it.  I framed the vocabulary practices with specific connections to the most recent brain research.  The set of activities, seemingly simple in many ways, is adaptable to any age group.  The activities can be scaffolded to be more challenging or simplified for younger students.  All students are able to participate in this activity.  By stressing the K-12 articulation through vertical teaming I am hoping that educators will take the initiative to form K-12 content area teams within their own districts!  When all teachers work together wonderful growth can take place.  Hopefully content area teachers at all grade levels were able to see and experience the benefits of taking the time to focus on content-area vocabulary regardless of their content area.

What I would do more of, better, or differently...

Reaching all students is essential to effective teaching!  It is important to share strategies that can be used with any practice to help reach our most difficult students.  I wish I had shared some of those strategies.  This sequence of vocabulary practices is easily adaptable to help meet the needs of all students.  For example, students with learning difficulties or writing challenges may complete their vocabulary boxes using a computer program that produces webs and includes pictures.  Sharing strategies that could be used with all students or asking the participants to brainstorm strategies would have created another dimension to the presentation.  Also, in the classroom students are always provided with an exemplar.  This helps them to clarify the expectations.  A more effective strategy to help the students share their words is a “kiva” which you can see demonstrated in Maryanne Woods-Murphy’s video.  I have just started to use this activity in my classroom with great success.

I still want to grow this practice by…

In my classroom I continue to introduce new ways to reinforce content area vocabulary.  Eventually students would be able to choose from a menu of vocabulary strategies.  This would allow the students to identify the ways in which they learn most effectively and take ownership of their learning.  The flip side of the vocabulary coin is fidelity to the practice of consistently using the vocabulary in my own interactions with the students and requiring that they use it with others.



About Barbara Walton-Faria

Barbara Walton-Faria is a middle school science teacher. Barbara has been teaching science at Thompson Middle School in Newport, RI since 1992. Bar...

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