Closing the Word Gap in Science

Anhydrous, exothermic, fullerene, isomerase, medulla, monomers, ribosomes, titration, xylem…

How many of these words do you know? For a scientist – or even a knowledgeable GCSE science student, no less – this list of complex words will trigger a wealth of background knowledge. For many pupils, however, the same list of words would likely provoke bafflement, or even a response characterised by fear.

For every science teacher then, mediating the rich, complex language of science is a vital step in helping our students move from novices to science experts. To do so, we need to ensure every science teacher understands the challenge of science vocabulary and what to do about it.

The variable vocabulary of science

The language of science is uniquely challenging for our students because the words are typically bigger, harder and separate from the daily lives of our students. When you enter the science classroom, to speak, write and read like a scientist, it is tantamount to learning a new language. Like we would in Spanish or French, we need to attend to this act of translation.

Indeed, given science vocabulary is so tricky, examiners for GCSEs ensure that exam questions are accessible. They ensure sentence lengths and structures are accessible and that every effort is made to allow students to interpret the language of science. If we focus then on teaching the words and concepts in science, our students can succeed.

First, we can understand that scientific language has multiple ways to represent the scientific concept. And so, the word ‘silver’ – so common to our daily lives – can be represented as the chemical symbol ‘Ag’, or the atomic number 47, as part of the category of ‘transition metals’. Therefore, we need to ‘read’ silver in different ways, with the word initiating more specialised background knowledge than just its common use as a precious metal for jewellery. 

Drawing upon background knowledge to consider silver may be somewhat helpful, but sometimes the differences between vocabulary in everyday use and in the science classroom is problematic. Take the word ‘cracking’. In most familiar terms, it describes something breaking apart, but then in colloquial language, it may represent something being ‘great’. In Chemistry, it represents a very specific process of breaking down hydrocarbons into smaller, more useful molecules.

It is clear then that science is a specialist language with a challenging array of complex words and phrases. Indeed, given these words commonly derive from Greek and Latin roots, they have more prefixes and suffixes, so they are simply longer words. To add necessary specificity, they often appear as expanded noun phrases, not just singular words. For example, tricky phrases like ‘catalytic cracking’ or ‘synthetic carbon compounds’ raise the vocabulary challenge bar further for our students.

Practical strategies to teach scientific vocabulary

It is important to first identify the scientific vocabulary to explicitly teach. In the OUP ‘Closing the word gap: activities for the classroom – Science’, Emily Seeber offers a really helpful categorisation of scientific vocabulary, breaking it down into:

  • Naming words
  • Process words
  • Concept words
  • Non-technical words
  • Semi-technical words, and
  • Scientific words

When we categorise in this way, we can then allot specific opportunities to explicitly teach these words in our schemes of learning. Crucially, our students need to see these words in writing, hear their pronunciation, view and explore multiple examples. Regular, cumulative quizzing offers us a way to revisit and retain these words in our curriculum design.

Given the vast majority of scientific vocabulary has Greek and Latin origins, we can teach etymology (the history of the word) and the morphology (the study of word parts) of scientific terms. By breaking down the words, we can address misconceptions and connect up science concepts. (See the ‘Closing the Word Gap’ activities section on ‘Exploring etymology and morphology’)

For example, if we teach ‘exothermic’, breaking down word parts is eminently useful. We take ‘exo’ – meaning ‘out’ and ‘thermic’ – from the Greek ‘therme’ meaning ‘heat’. By teaching one word, we introduced students to a family of words with the prefix ‘exo’ (e.g. exogenous, exocarp and exocrine). Very quickly, the language of science becomes less exotic for our pupils!

As primary and secondary schools consider curriculum development, for the new school year and beyond, a good place to start is identifying the words to teach. For our disadvantaged pupils in particular, the evidence shows that it is important to place literacy at the heart of science teaching, so that the language of science does not prove a barrier to success. If we pay close attention to the word gap in science, it is clear that we benefit all of our students.

Alex Quigley is National Content Manager for the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), a former teacher, and the author of ‘Closing the Vocabulary Gap’.

For more information about Closing the Word Gap in Science, take a look at our Word Gap Activities and Resources post and Sam Holyman’s blog about Closing the Word Gap in Science.

Oxford Resources to support you with closing the word gap

Download our free Activate Science Literacy Mat to help your KS3 students develop their vocabulary and write coherently about science.

Download your Science Literacy Mat here.

The Oxford Primary Illustrated Science Dictionary is filled with terms and concepts from the curriculum clearly explained to support children aged 8-11. With around 1000 words and meanings and a thematic supplement on focus areas, it is the ideal quick reference tool for school and home.

The Oxford Student’s Science Dictionary provides comprehensive support to secondary school students in scientific terminology. With over 1000 key scientific concepts and additional related words, 2-colour illustrations and diagrams, and feature panels on special topics, this is a key dictionary for students preparing for GCSE and other exams.

2 thoughts on “Closing the Word Gap in Science

  1. Julie Addis says:

    Yes, I agree completely. However, to me not enough attention is paid to basic use of English when using numeracy terminology…fewer or less for example. If we can’t get the basics correct, there’s no hope to build on these wobbly foundations.

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