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Building Science Vocabulary to Build Academic Success

Academic Vocabulary is defined as words specifically used in academic dialogue and text but are not encountered in informal conversations. It is the language of academic success. As we prepare our students for achievement in the Science content area, either to pass their High School Equivalency Test and / or to enter a science based career,  we need to provide direct instruction in vocabulary.  While, the paper, Academic Language: From Theory to Practice, focuses on building academic vocabulary in elementary education, many of the strategies can be used with adults. 

  • What strategies can we adapt in our classrooms? 
  • What difficulties do you have teaching students academic vocabulary in the Science content area? 

Kathy Tracey 





Susan Finn Miller's picture
One hundred

Hi Kathy and all, We know we all need multiple exposures to vocabulary before we truly know a word or expression. Learning how to actually use new vocabulary appropriately is even more demanding. I appreciate how the authors of the article you shared with us emphasize the need to engage students in many encounters with new vocabulary through reading, writing, listening and speaking. One way to do that is to use semantic maps. It would be great to hear from members who are using different graphic organizers to support vocabulary learning.

One of my goals is to engage students in using the vocabulary they are learning in personally meaningful interactions with one another. For example, not long ago, we read an article in the local newspaper about lead paint in older homes. One of the vocabulary expressions in this article was "to be exposed to." In order to engage students in conversation using this expression, I created the following conversation starters.

1. Is it harmful to be exposed to second-hand smoke? Why or why not?

2. How can people avoid being exposed to colds or the flu?

3. How can people protect themselves from being exposed to too much sun?

4. Have you ever been exposed to a neighbor who plays his or her music too loud? If yes, what did you do?

5. What are some chemicals that people should avoid being exposed to?

I also use questions such as these as writing prompts. Comments on this approach are welcome!

There are so many excellent suggestions in this article for supporting students to learn not only academic vocabulary, but also academic language including the complex syntax of academic text in the disciplines. I'm eager to hear how teachers are approaching the teaching of academic vocabulary and academic language in science.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, AELL, Assessment & College & Career Standards CoPs

Leecy's picture
One hundred

Kathy, Susan, and, hopefully, others, the practices that you have both shared on developing and applying academic vocabulary are right on. Kathy, I had to smile when I read the table cell for "The connection between pronouns and Their referents." The new rule on that makes it difficult to apply sometimes, ad in " Every student needs to complete the registration form. _______ (They? She? He?) need/needs to review the form carefully beforehand." :) 

So much science vocabulary combines word parts to create new meanings. When I introduce word parts, I like to use the image of a train. The engine is the root. Moving to the right, the engine (root) pulls the railroad car on the left (prefi - goes before the root). It can also push the railroad car (suffix - after the root): prefix-root   root-suffix   prefix-root-suffix. I had to use a tug boat and barge for students in AK who had never seen a train. Maybe others can come up with other images, like a tractor with front and back equipment?

I advocate two tools that provide students with enjoyable practice memorizing and applying scientific or other vocabulary: and Both are free.

Quizzlet has fantastic options for creating, illustrating, and defining terms, which students can then practice in different ways: games, puzzles, and more. One of "my" teachers created a quizzlet to accompany her lab introduction on how fluid systems operate to create pressure in the body.  You can see her quizzlet at Once the flashcards load, take a look at the top to see the options to flashcards, learning, spelling, testing, matching, and gravity game. Quizlet also pronounces the terms, which really helps with scientific vocabulary!

Hot Potatoes is a super easy quiz-creating app. It offers six-seven quiz types. I use the Cloze option a lot for practicing vocabulary in context. It takes me just a few minutes to create a quiz. With Cloze exercises, I often copy and paste an academic passage into Hot Potatoes and then delete every seventh word or selected words, which students then fill in.  I then save as .htm. Students click on the link and go right to the quiz in the browser. As students take the quiz, they are given feedback with grades, and allowed many tries if that's how you set it up. HP Crosswords are also fun. I need to be very clear on how I approach quizzes, however. They are not graded; they are practice tools for fun. If a teacher wants to grade a quiz, I suggest that they give students ample time to take the quiz as many times as they wish until they get the grade they want within that deadline.



Kathy_Tracey's picture
One hundred


I love the visuals you shared and I smiled with the tug boat. Visuals are a great way to help take an abstract idea and make it more tangible. My daughter used / uses quizzlet for preparing for college classes. She would often run through key terms and vocabulary while riding the bus to classes. The best part for her was that she created her own quizzes and then studied, and she used them for mostly vocabulary terms. 

Thanks for sharing those tools. Here is a brief youtube tutorial on how to use quizzlet. One strategy might be to actually teach quizzlet and have students create their own resources to share with the class. Has anyone tried this in the past? If so, how did it work?