: Vocabulary: A Golden Thread in Primary Science Why is it so important for children to use and apply scientific vocabulary to develop their understanding of the world?


Vocabulary: A Golden Thread in Primary Science

Why is it so important for children to use and apply scientific vocabulary to develop their understanding of the world?

by Exchange Research School at Don Valley Academy
on the

Mikaela Moore, Primary Director of Science with Delta Academies Trust, and Donna Brown, Associate Director of Exchange Research School.

Whilst our future is increasingly driven by the STEM sectors, equipping children with the foundational skills they will need to develop a healthy curiosity and sound scientific understanding of the world has never been more salient.

There is currently a gap in science attainment between disadvantaged pupils and their peers which is further compounded by a gap in scientific vocabulary.

The first recommendation of the Education Endowment Foundation Improving Primary Science Guidance Report states:

Primary science recommendation 1

When executed well these methods provide educators with a prime opportunity to close both gaps: vocabulary and scientific attainment.

What is the golden thread?

Explicit vocabulary instruction will certainly help children to learn more science words and recall more facts, but how do we stop this from being a bolt-on? How do we achieve the greater goal of children gaining a much deeper scientific understanding of how the world around them works?

How do we:

‘Use vocabulary approaches that promote rich language connections and help pupils understand the relationships between words and concepts.’

Beyond the first recommendation of the guidance report, vocabulary is the key feature which is interleaved throughout them all: a golden thread. When implemented successfully, the recommendations should support the development of a rich scientific vocabulary, which in turn will enhance and support the five other recommendations:

- Encourage pupils to explain their thinking, whether verbally or in written form

Opportunities for children to apply science-specific vocabulary will support children’s explanations and thinking, demonstrating a depth of understanding as well as the connection of ideas.

- Guide pupils to work scientifically

Also acknowledged in the Ofsted Research Review 2023 Finding the Optimum: the science subject report, working scientifically is best taught alongside the curriculum content and knowledge to be learned. The use of practical science will enable pupils to link their vocabulary to science in action and apply it accordingly.

- Relate new learning to relevant, real-world contexts

Where practical investigations are not applicable, the use of models to provide context for the vocabulary will support and strengthen children’s understanding of it, allowing them to revisit and repeatedly engage with it.

Use assessment to support learning and responsive teaching

Understanding children’s starting points, wherever that fits into curriculum progression, will support them to revisit existing vocabulary and build on this further. Assessment of this and how we adapt our teaching to support this will allow all children to acquire new and meaningful science-specific vocabulary.

- Strengthen science teaching through effective professional development as part of a monitored improvement cycle

Monitoring the use of vocabulary from teacher modelling to how accurately it is applied independently, will guide teachers and leaders to where potential gaps in teacher’s subject knowledge is so that effective CPD can be delivered.

What does this look like in practice?
Consider the example of a Year 3 unit on rocks: What does the curriculum content look like? Where have children made links to this before? How can vocabulary become our golden thread?

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When considering the appearance and physical properties of rocks, this links back to work in Year 1 and Year 2 on materials. Within this unit a range of different properties should have been explored for various materials. By linking back and showing children they already have some of this substantive knowledge they can begin to build on it further, through the introduction of new vocabulary.

The introduction of new vocabulary should always be explicit – teach the word, the meaning and add context. The planning of lessons and the sequence of lessons will ensure this is an embedded part of practice and not a bolt on’ activity. Having a practical activity or model that will support children’s understanding of the new vocabulary will support them to remember it and recall it, as part of the repeated engagement’ stated in the guidance report. Simply having the opportunity to identify a layer, grain or crystal in a rock for themselves gives children ownership. Explaining this to a group and demonstrating their understanding supports their knowledge but also your assessment.

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