March/April 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 6

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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California Science Curriculum Framework Now Available

Posted: Tuesday, March 14th, 2017

The pre-publication version of the new California Science Curriculum Framework is now available for download. This publication incorporates all the edits that were approved by the State Board of Education in November 2016 and was many months in the making. Our sincere thanks to the dozens of CSTA members were involved in its development. Our appreciation is also extended to the California Department of Education, the State Board of Education, the Instructional Quality Commission, and the Science Curriculum Framework and Evaluation Criteria Committee and their staff for their hard work and dedication to produce this document and for their commitment to the public input process. To the many writers and contributors to the Framework CSTA thanks you for your many hours of work to produce a world-class document.

For tips on how to approach this document see our article from December 2016: California Has Adopted a New Science Curriculum Framework – Now What …? If you would like to learn more about the Framework, consider participating in one of the Framework Launch events (a.k.a. Rollout #4) scheduled throughout 2017.

The final publication version (formatted for printing) will be available in July 2017. This document will not be available in printed format, only electronically.

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.

Call for CSTA Awards Nominations

Posted: Monday, March 13th, 2017

The 2017 Award Season is now open! One of the benefits of being a CSTA member is your eligibility for awards as well as your eligibility to nominate someone for an award. CSTA offers several awards and members may nominate individuals and organizations for the Future Science Teacher Award, the prestigious Margaret Nicholson Distinguished Service Award, and the CSTA Distinguished Contributions Award (organizational award). May 9, 2017 is the deadline for nominations for these awards. CSTA believes that the importance of science education cannot be overstated. Given the essential presence of the sciences in understanding the past and planning for the future, science education remains, and will increasingly be one of the most important disciplines in education. CSTA is committed to recognizing and encouraging excellence in science teaching through the presentation of awards to science educators and organizations who have made outstanding contributions in science education in the state and who are poised to continue the momentum of providing high quality, relevant science education into the future. 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.

Call for Volunteers – CSTA Committees

Posted: Monday, March 13th, 2017


CSTA is now accepting applications from regular, preservice, and retired members to serve on our volunteer committees! CSTA’s all-volunteer board of directors invites you to consider maximizing your member experience by volunteering for CSTA. CSTA committee service offers you the opportunity to share your expertise, learn a new skill, or do something you love to do but never have the opportunity to do in your regular day. CSTA committee volunteers do some pretty amazing things: 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.

A Friend in CA Science Education Now at CSTA Region 1 Science Center

Posted: Monday, March 13th, 2017

by Marian Murphy-Shaw

If you attended an NGSS Rollout phase 1-3 or CDE workshops at CSTA’s annual conference you may recall hearing from Chris Breazeale when he was working with the CDE. Chris has relocated professionally, with his passion for science education, and is now the Executive Director at the Explorit Science Center, a hands-on exploration museum featuring interactive STEM exhibits located at the beautiful Mace Ranch, 3141 5th St. in Davis, CA. Visitors can “think it, try it, and explorit” with a variety of displays that allow visitors to “do science.” To preview the museum, or schedule a classroom visit, see 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.

Learning to Teach in 3D

Posted: Monday, March 13th, 2017

by Joseph Calmer

Probably like you, NGSS has been at the forefront of many department meetings, lunch conversations, and solitary lesson planning sessions. Despite reading the original NRC Framework, the Ca Draft Frameworks, and many CSTA writings, I am still left with the question: “what does it actually mean for my classroom?”

I had an eye-opening experience that helped me with that question. It came out of a conversation that I had with a student teacher. It turns out that I’ve found the secret to learning how to teach with NGSS: I need to engage in dialogue about teaching with novice teachers. I’ve had the pleasure of teaching science in some capacity for 12 years. During that time pedagogy and student learning become sort of a “hidden curriculum.” It is difficult to plan a lesson for the hidden curriculum; the best way is to just have two or more professionals talk and see what emerges. I was surprised it took me so long to realize this epiphany. Learn More…

Written by Guest Contributor

From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy: