Closing the Word Gap in science: 6 ways to build scientific vocabulary

In 2018 we surveyed over 1,300 primary and secondary teachers about their experiences of the Word Gap in schools and collated our findings in the Oxford Language Report. Following on from this research, we partnered with Teachit to develop downloadable packs of resources and initiatives that can be used in the classroom. The science pack was written by Emily Seeber, a Head of Sciences based in Hampshire. Here’s a quick summary of her suggestions.

1. Word banks

We use a huge technical vocabulary in science, including science-specific words, scientific interpretations of everyday terms, and complex logical connectives which are used to link ideas. If you identify the important vocabulary for a specific lesson or topic students will feel less overwhelmed.

This vocabulary can be categorised into word banks in a number of ways, such as level of abstractness (naming words, process words, concept words) or whether a word adds breadth to a student’s vocabulary (they haven’t heard the word before) or depth (they are familiar with the word, but not its meaning in a scientific context).

Students can sort the vocabulary into a framework you’ve provided, suggest links between concepts, or play Pictionary with the terms in the word bank. See the pack for more details on these strategies.

2. Making links between key terms

Logical connectives, such as because and despite, which we use to link scientific ideas, can be difficult for students to interpret. Try providing them with a collection of logical connectives in order of increasing difficulty so that students become familiar with the full range of terms they might encounter.

It’s also important to remember that concept terms cannot be understood in isolation: understanding the term power relies on understanding the terms work and energy, for example.

Emily suggests several strategies for making links between key terms in the Word Gap pack.

3. Exploring etymology and morphology

Help students to understand the root words that make up so many words in science by splitting key terms down into their constituent parts. This will help them to interpret new words when they encounter them, both within science and across the wider curriculum.

There’s a list of useful root words with definitions and some suggested strategies for teaching them in the pack.

4. Using talk to widen vocabulary

Using key terms in their own talk both increases students’ familiarity with the terms and provides you as the teacher with the opportunity to correct any misuse of key terms. Plus, students are more likely to remember content, as well as vocabulary, when they have to explain their ideas.

Strategies for using talk to widen vocabulary include modelling use of terminology, playing Just a Minute, and challenging students when they use vague language. For more ideas, take a look at the pack.

5. Avoiding common mistakes and misunderstandings

We all make mistakes!

It’s worth keeping a list of commonly misused terms on display in your department. Always tackle common mistakes explicitly in class. You can also use word completion tasks for areas where students are struggling, or ask students to spot mistakes in a mock answer.

6. Understanding vocabulary for exams and assessments

If students are to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding effectively in their exams, they need to be able to interpret the questions with confidence. The terms they need to understand can be separated into command words and scientific terms.

Make a note of common areas of concern from the examiner reports and which terms are particularly tricky for your own students. Incorporate these terms into general classroom talk to build familiarity. Suggestions for ways to do this can be found in the Word Gap resource pack.

Find out more about the Oxford Language Report and download the Closing the Word Gap resource pack for science from our website.