Learn-a-Word: Science Vocabulary Acquisition

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SWBAT use multiple sources to learn and teach other students the meaning of a science vocabulary word.

Big Idea

Science vocabulary is hard to learn! Students collaborate to create meaningful and useful resources to learn and retain science vocabulary.


15 minutes

"Let's learn some vocabulary so we can communicate with each other!"...


Science has its own complicated language. In order to understand scientific concepts and carry out investigations, it is important to speak the same language. However, teachers know that the simple act of looking up definitions can be met with dismay and creative stalling when introduced to the middle school classroom. In order to ENGAGE students in this lesson, post a confusing sentence on the board like this one:

I would like you to auscultate carefully in order to hear the cacophony of the borborygmi that are emitted from the innards while I pandiculate.

With a partner, students are challenged to "translate" the scientific sentence into a sentence that we could all understand. Share with students the real meaning and offer a prize for the group that gets closest. The real meaning of this sentence is: I would like you to listen to the sounds of internal organs with a stethoscope to hear the jarring or inharmonious sound of the rumbling and gurgling of the intestines that are coming from inside organs while I stretch and yawn at the same time.


30 minutes

The EXPLORE stage of the lesson is to get students involved in the topic so that they start to build their own understanding. To help students explore scientific vocabulary, students obtain, evaluate and communicate information (SP 8) in this lesson through research and presentation of what they have learned about their vocabulary word.

To start, choose a list of 8 - 12 words that the class will study. Here is an example of a vocabulary list from a Forces and Motion Unit: Forces and Motion Vocabulary List

Assign one word to every student while trying to create groups that include a person studying each word. If the number of students does not allow for complete groups, try differentiating. For example, advanced students may have two words while students who require additional support may work with a partner. Providing a Learn-a-Word Resource List is another differentiation technique to support students when conducting research. For my lesson, students accessed a shared Google Spreadsheet, Unit 1 Vocabulary Group Assignments, in order to find their assigned word, group and a link to the Google Slides presentation where they would create their teaching artifact.

Students complete Parts 1 - 4 of the Learn A Word Student Handout. During this part of the lesson, students gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WHST.6-8.8)

1) Create a paraphrased definition of the word.

2) Identify at least one example, synonym or related word.

3) Identify at least one non-example, antonym or easily confused word.

4) Find one link from the Internet that explains the word.

5) Draw or find illustrations of the word.

Important student needs to consider when approaching this research part of the lesson are discussed here:

When students complete their exploration, they then create a teaching artifact that can be used to teach others their word. Teaching artifacts can be low-tech posters or utilize technology by creating slides for a PowerPoint or Google Slides presentation. The practice of including multimedia components and visual displays in presentations to clarify information (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.6.5) is another point of rigor for this lesson. Students use the checklist on the handout to ensure they have included enough useful information.

If time allows, students practice teaching their word with a partner. If time is short, students practice teaching their word to someone at home overnight as homework.


30 minutes

The EXPLAIN stage provides students with an opportunity to communicate what they have learned so far and figure out what it means. This stage of the lesson presents a great place for a quick formative assessment. Students convene with their complete groups for a teaching session. Students take turns presenting their word (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.6.4) to the group and answering questions using their teaching artifact: Example Collaborative Google Slides Vocabulary Presentation.

Students may take notes during the presentations using a blank vocabulary list like this one: Forces and Motion Vocabulary List.  When the group has completed their presentation, provide a copy of the vocabulary notes: Forces and Motion Vocabulary List Notes. If students create a PowerPoint or Google Slides presentation, show students where to access it (post on class Web-site or blog) when they would like to review the words.

During this part of the lesson, it is imperative that students follow classroom norms around respectful listening and attention to the task. Teaching other students is very challenging for most students, so reinforcing a positive, patient and respectful classroom culture by clearly stating your expectations is important. As seen here, students were very respectful listeners, but the second student to present required a reminder to present professionally rather than dramatically.



The EXTEND stage allows students to apply new knowledge to a novel situation. The novel situation in this case is a project using the vocabulary words chosen by students. For this lesson, I do not require an extension, but by the nature of the lesson, some students end up with extra time during the EXPLORE stage. If students have time or choose to extend their learning, they choose from a list of possible projects shown on the back of the Forces and Motion Vocabulary List. The extensions are often very useful for other students to use when reviewing for an assessment of the vocabulary. I post student extensions on our class Web-site to encourage a continuation of students teaching each other and creating useful resources for each other.


10 minutes

The EVALUATION stage is for both students and teachers to determine how much learning and understanding has taken place. Vocabulary acquisition and true conceptual understanding does not happen over the course of one lesson. For that reason, I prefer to assess students at the end of a unit of study by requiring use of the vocabulary words in context during a summative assessment.

Four methods of formative assessment I may use to promote accountability for learning the words include:

1) While students present to each other, it is possible to gauge their level of understanding by monitoring how students present their words and whether they can answer questions about the words accurately. Keeping a record of student proficiency can be useful later when deciding what kinds of interventions or extensions might help students.

2) A final review of student's final artifacts, in this case a Google Slides Presentation, provides a good view of whether students are able to access different resources and extract relevant information from it. 

3) I do give a short quiz using the definitions, examples and illustrations students used in their artifacts to teach each other. The purpose of this quiz is less to check for complete conceptual understanding, but to encourage students to use their created resource to at least know the word and its definition.

4) As suggested in the Learning Vocabulary as Play - Make a Game of It Reflection, if time allows, play a game with the words to help students experience the words in a fun way.