Research School Network: The Force is strong with this one… Developing pupils’ vocabulary in primary science


The Force is strong with this one…

Developing pupils’ vocabulary in primary science

by Shotton Hall Research School
on the

Louise Brooks of Shotton Hall Research School looks into the guidance from the EEF in their new report Improving Primary Science’ and considers the evidence and strategies around the development of pupils’ scientific vocabulary.

How do you teach a child that in the world of science, the term force’ is used to represent a push or a pull, or make something move or change shape? How do you teach a child to use a term for something which represents an abstract concept and potentially conflicts and confuses prior knowledge? No wonder scientific vocabulary can be confusing and difficult to use and understand.

May the force be with you…

The evidence base which underpins the first of the EEF’s recommendations is indeed strong’ and as we grapple with the challenges of an increasingly academic science curriculum, it may be useful to adopt their suggested approaches in the development of pupils’ scientific vocabulary. They suggest two ways:

1a. Identify science specific vocabulary.

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This model, which is adapted from Beck and McKeown (2013) shows an example of the tiers of vocabulary used when discussing the topic of forces and magnets. There is a clear scientific vocabulary focus within tiers 2 and 3, but this model also includes ‘Polysemous’ words -those such as ‘force’- that have an everyday meaning and a scientific meaning. The words and the groupings of the words will of course be topic specific and will also depend on the prior knowledge of your pupils. Identifying these words in advance helps you to plan when and how you introduce the new words and their meanings, and how you introduce them into your lessons in the most effective way for your pupils.

1b. Explicitly teach new words and their meaning, creating opportunities for repeated engagement and use over time

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Once explicitly taught, pupils need to develop and deepen their conceptual understanding of the words. This will also enable them to use words correctly in different scenarios. To do this, the EEF outlines 4 different strategies

1. Model the use of the new word in context

Pupil: When I drop a ball, the Earth pulls it to the ground.”

The force that pulls things to the centre of Earth is called gravity. Gravity is a force which pulls all things, including ourselves towards the centre of Earth. All objects fall towards Earth because of the force gravity.”

2. Create context for words that need to be learned

For example, when introducing the term friction’, draw on pupils first hand experience to help create context. Explain that friction is a force that prevents our shoes from slipping when we walk or stops the car tyres from skidding on the road. Explain that friction is caused between the tread on your shoes and the ground.

3. Expose pupils to new vocabulary across all literacy activities

For example, by creating multiple opportunities for pupils to revisit and engage with scientific vocabulary over time, pupils are more able to use vocabulary actively and accurately themselves to reinforce their learning and support recall. This could be done through careful text choice within reading lessons or using scientific contexts for writing purposes.

4. Use vocabulary approaches that promote rich language connections

Using a combination of visual aids and images such as drawings or diagrams supports and deepens children’s understanding of how words and concepts are related. Another approach might be to include discussing the origin of words (etymology) or the structure of words (morphology). For example, in terms of etymology, the word resistance’ comes from the Latin resistere’ meaning to make a stand against’ or oppose’.

Further examples of using these approaches in classrooms can be found in the Guidance Report.

To summarise, if we use these approaches to develop our pupils’ understanding of scientific vocabulary, not only will we enable them to actively participate and communicate in science learning, but we create opportunities to better understand the world around them

Remember, the Force will be with you always’ and with that in mind, if you would like more information from the Research Schools’ Network, you can sign up to our newsletter here.

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