September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

Is NGSS the End of Vocabulary?

Posted: Tuesday, November 4th, 2014

by Peter A’Hearn

An exchange from a recent 4th grade lesson (excerpted):

[1] The Three Dimensions of Learning are found in Appendix E, F, and G at  and Chapters 3-8 from The Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas (NRC, 2012) can be found here.

National Park Service Photo by Neal Herbert

National Park Service Photo by Neal Herbert

Teacher: What processes make a canyon?

Student (after pair sharing): Erosion.

Teacher: Tell me more about what that means…

Student: Erosion.

Teacher: So what does erosion mean? What happens?

Another student: Wind and water.

Teacher: Wind and water do what?

Another student: Erosion.

This is actually pretty common experience in a science lesson. Students have a learned a word that is the correct answer without really understanding the concepts behind the word. Sometimes teachers hear the correct word and assume that means there is understanding.

I have heard a few discussions recently about NGSS and vocabulary. Teachers have noticed that the Performance Expectations seem to dance around the vocabulary. For example from 5th grade:

 5-LS1-1: Support an argument that plants get the materials they need for growth chiefly from air and water.

Notice that the word “photosynthesis” is not there?

An informal educator, noticing some missing terms, asked, “Are we not allowed to say sedimentary, metamorphic, igneous anymore?

A group of high school biology teachers looking at the Structure and Function unit wonder if terms like phospholipid bilayer, Golgi bodies, endoplasmic reticulum, vacuoles, and active transport are going to be part of their instruction under NGSS.

What is going on here? Is vocabulary no longer an important part of science instruction? Is NGSS ditching vocab?

Project 2061, Science For All Americans, recommended de-emphasizing vocabulary in science instruction back in 1989: Deemphasize the Memorization of Technical Vocabulary.

Understanding rather than vocabulary should be the main purpose of science teaching. However, unambiguous terminology is also important in scientific communication and—ultimately—for understanding. Some technical terms are therefore helpful for everyone, but the number of essential ones is relatively small. If teachers introduce technical terms only as needed to clarify thinking and promote effective communication, then students will gradually build a functional vocabulary that will survive beyond the next test. For teachers to concentrate on vocabulary, however, is to detract from science as a process, to put learning for understanding in jeopardy, and to risk being misled about what students have learned.

This is seems to be very much the spirit of NGSS. The standards are emphasizing that students understand the science over the use of the correct term. This is especially true if we want students who are challenged with language to “do science.”

The recent article Language Demands and Opportunities in Relation to Next Generation Science Standards for English Language Learners: What Teachers Need to Know (co-authored by Helen Quinn, the lead scientist in the development of NGSS), states that:

“A student with an idea to share will want to express that idea. Often the language used to do so will not be “correct” either in the sense that the words used are not the correct technical terms, or that the grammar of the sentences is non-canonical. If these normal characteristics of emerging English are corrected, the discourse becomes stilted and the student’s urge to speak is suppressed.”

But there is another side to this. In the real world people are judged by their use of vocabulary. We hallucinate that people who know bigger words are smarter and more capable.

We also know that to read scientific text requires that students sift through some very challenging vocabulary and jargon. This is part of the Science and Engineering Practice of Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information and also of students being able to work with challenging text under Common Core. So, if our students are going to be successful at higher levels of science education and in science fields, they will need to be exposed to and competent at using challenging vocabulary. Consequently, NGSS’s de-emphasis on vocabulary cannot mean the complete end of vocabulary in science class. But I think it does suggest some ways in which vocabulary instruction can be more effective and appropriate:

  • Cut your vocabulary lists down to size–make sure the list is short and the words are powerful.
  • Be aware that the “correct word” can sometimes mask misunderstanding and make sure students can explain what the word means in the appropriate context.
  • Don’t pre-load too much vocabulary. Provide the word when students are starting to understand the concept and need to have the term to be more precise and communicate clearly.
  • When students are close reading challenging text, don’t pre-teach vocabulary. Instead, teach the students to identify terms they don’t understand and the strategies they can use to persevere: looking for context cues, breaking the word down, or looking the word up. In the real world nobody gives you a vocabulary list before you read a challenging text.
  • Listen carefully to your students, they may understand more than their words let them explain!

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the Region 4 Director for CSTA.

3 Responses

  1. My background is in both science and foreign language teaching. In the latter specialty, it is well understood that the only way a student really learns new words is in context, and the only way the words are remembered is when there is an immediate need to use them multiple times.

  2. You gave me an “AHA” moment…I rely on preteaching the vocab words, when really they should seek out words they don’t know and practice defining them and discussing uses for the words! I will be modifying my lessons! Thank you!

  3. Thank you for this post. You packaged beautifully research, classroom examples, and thoughtful analysis of this popular topic. Our class operates with “common language” used to enhance communication of evidence-based thinking. After students explore core ideas and concepts using the NGSS practices, we “capture” common language and find concensus as part of the Explain phase. Our class experience echoes the ideas presented in your post and I feel strongly my students actually understand the vocabulary we use in our discourse because we use it in the context of a phenomena they care about.

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State Schools Chief Tom Torlakson Announces 2017 Finalists for Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching

Posted: Wednesday, September 20th, 2017

SACRAMENTO—State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson today nominated eight exceptional secondary mathematics and science teachers as California finalists for the 2017 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST).

“These teachers are dedicated and accomplished individuals whose innovative teaching styles prepare our students for 21st century careers and college and develop them into the designers and inventors of the future,” Torlakson said. “They rank among the finest in their profession and also serve as wonderful mentors and role models.”

The California Department of Education (CDE) partners annually with the California Science Teachers Association and the California Mathematics Council to recruit and select nominees for the PAEMST program—the highest recognition in the nation for a mathematics or science teacher. The Science Finalists will be recognized at the CSTA Awards Luncheon on Saturday, October 14, 2017. Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Thriving in a Time of Change

Posted: Wednesday, September 13th, 2017

by Jill Grace

By the time this message is posted online, most schools across California will have been in session for at least a month (if not longer, and hat tip to that bunch!). Long enough to get a good sense of who the kids in your classroom are and to get into that groove and momentum of the daily flow of teaching. It’s also very likely that for many of you who weren’t a part of a large grant initiative or in a district that set wheels in motion sooner, this is the first year you will really try to shift instruction to align to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). I’m not going to lie to you, it’s a challenging year – change is hard. Change is even harder when there’s not a playbook to go by.  But as someone who has had the very great privilege of walking alongside teachers going through that change for the past two years and being able to glimpse at what this looks like for different demographics across that state, there are three things I hope you will hold on to. These are things I have come to learn will overshadow the challenge: a growth mindset will get you far, one is a very powerful number, and it’s about the kids. Learn More…

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Written by Jill Grace

Jill Grace

Jill Grace is a Regional Director for the K-12 Alliance and is President of CSTA.

If You Are Not Teaching Science Then You Are Not Teaching Common Core

Posted: Thursday, August 31st, 2017

by Peter A’Hearn 

“Science and Social Studies can be taught for the last half hour of the day on Fridays”

– Elementary school principal

Anyone concerned with the teaching of science in elementary school is keenly aware of the problem of time. Kids need to learn to read, and learning to read takes time, nobody disputes that. So Common Core ELA can seem like the enemy of science. This was a big concern to me as I started looking at the curriculum that my district had adopted for Common Core ELA. I’ve been through those years where teachers are learning a new curriculum, and know first-hand how a new curriculum can become the focus of attention- sucking all the air out of the room. Learn More…

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

Peter A’Hearn is the Region 4 Director for CSTA.

Tools for Creating NGSS Standards Based Lessons

Posted: Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

by Elizabeth Cooke

Think back on your own experiences with learning science in school. Were you required to memorize disjointed facts without understanding the concepts?

Science Education Background

In the past, science education focused on rote memorization and learning disjointed ideas. Elementary and secondary students in today’s science classes are fortunate now that science instruction has shifted from students demonstrating what they know to students demonstrating how they are able to apply their knowledge. Science education that reflects the Next Generation Science Standards challenges students to conduct investigations. As students explore phenomena and discrepant events they engage in academic discourse guided by focus questions from their teachers or student generated questions of that arise from analyzing data and creating and revising models that explain natural phenomena. Learn More…

Written by Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke teaches TK-5 science at Markham Elementary in the Oakland Unified School District, is an NGSS Early Implementer, and is CSTA’s Secretary.

News and Happenings in CSTA’s Region 1 – Fall 2017

Posted: Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

by Marian Murphy-Shaw


This month I was fortunate enough to hear about some new topics to share with our entire region. Some of you may access the online or newsletter options, others may attend events in person that are nearer to you. Long time CSTA member and environmental science educator Mike Roa is well known to North Bay Area teachers for his volunteer work sharing events and resources. In this month’s Region 1 updates I am happy to make a few of the options Mike offers available to our region. Learn More…

Written by Marian Murphy-Shaw

Marian Murphy-Shaw

Marian Murphy-Shaw is the student services director at Siskiyou County Office of Education and is CSTA’s Region 1 Director and chair of CSTA’s Policy Committee.