Research School Network: Improving Primary Science – Developing Pupils’ Scientific Vocabulary Zooming into recommendation 1 of the newly published Improving Primary Science guidance report.

Improving Primary Science – Developing Pupils’ Scientific Vocabulary

Zooming into recommendation 1 of the newly published Improving Primary Science guidance report.

As a secondary science teacher and former head of science, I was especially excited to see the publications of the EEF’s new Improving Primary Science guidance report. The report provides six principles intended to support the effective teaching of primary science, thereby developing pupils’ scientific curiosity and thinking.

When I first read through the report there were a number of recommendations that stood out to me, but the one that resonated most was Recommendation 1: Developing Pupils’ Scientific Vocabulary. At Durrington we have been focusing on explicitly teaching vocabulary for a few years now, and we have working on developing this within the science department more specifically. While we are a secondary school, there is a lot of phase cross-over here as the teaching of scientific vocabulary is important throughout the key stages. There are so many words that pupils need to understand and be confident to use in science, many of which can be, to quote the guidance report, confusing and abstract”. There are also so many that have different meanings in science compared to when using them in general speech. The sooner we get started on the explicit teaching of this vocabulary, the more chance we have of allowing all students to successfully access the science curriculum at each stage.

Developing pupils’ confidence in using scientific vocabulary is key to their success in science as the words allow them to be able to articulate their questions, thinking and understanding. For each topic the teacher will need to consider students’ prior knowledge, and the breadth of background knowledge needed to fully access the science being taught. The words pupils will need to be taught will change as they move through school as will the complexity of their definitions.

The EEF recommends three types of words to consider when developing scientific vocabulary at primary school:

- Identify words for that topic that have everyday meanings and a scientific meaning (polysemous words), for example matter, friction, force, attract. It is important to make the distinction here to reduce the chance of pupils being confused between lay words and scientific words

- Tier 2 words- which are important across the topic. For example, function, compare, conclusion. It is useful here to think about which tier 2 words need to be taught for a particular topic to allow pupils to fully engage with it.

- Tier 3 words are specific to the topic. For example, gravity, contact, magnetic, non- contact. For any science topic students are going learn about the teacher needs to consider which tier 3 words will need to be explicitly taught for the stage that they are at. It is a real skill to be able to define the terms using vocabulary that students understand whilst not dumbing down the science or accidently embedding misconceptions.

It would be useful to review the existing curriculum and create shared lists of words for each of the above categories for each topic. If these lists were stored centrally then when teachers in different years revisit topics, they can see what key vocabulary was taught and the definitions used so that they can build on pupils’ prior learning.

Once the words in each category have been identified the EEF recommendation is that the words are then explicitly taught along with their meaning through repeated engagement and use overtime”. Careful consideration therefore needs to be given to how the words will be introduced. The guidance report gives significant exemplification of how to do this. The following steps are taken from this exemplification:

1. Where applicable a breakdown of the word into its morphology and etymology, for example for photosynthesis could include showing pupils that photo’ refers to light and synthesis’ means to make.

2. The words can be broken up into the words syllables and pupils can then be asked to repeat it as a class then individually. If pupils do not feel confident saying the word, they will be reluctant to use it.

3. Give pupils the definition of the word in language that is accessible to them.

4. The teacher can then use the word in a sentence, then give students the opportunity to use the word themselves. This could involve them either picking the correct use of the word from multiple choice questions or using the word themselves in a sentence or during a discussion.

The EEF also suggests visual aids combined with drawing pictures can help understanding of the new words. They also recommend allowing pupils to use their new vocabulary in different contexts. Doing this verbally means pupils will not be affected by their reading and writing abilities.

In order to embed vocabulary instruction in teacher practice, having a standard routine for teachers to rehearse and use can be extremely helpful. Below is one version of how this may look:

Sci ex

In the first stage the word is broken down, here you could also hare the morphology and etymology where appropriate. Definitions are then used, using both student friendly and scientific language. In the next stage pupils are given a non-example, this can be added to through class discussion paired discussion or individually. This is to check the depth of pupils’ understanding. In the final stage pupils choose the correct use of the word and create a sentence of their own.

This is just one potential routine and many other models exist. Overall, however, developing scientific vocabulary is the key to unlocking the science curriculum for all our students and in order to do so we need to explicitly teach it.

By Jody Chan – Research School Associate

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