May/June 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 7

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 K-12 science specialist in the Palm Springs Unified School District and is 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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