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!

Powered By DT Author Box

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.

Leave a Reply


Participate in Chemistry Education Research Study, Earn $500-800 Dollars!

Posted: Tuesday, May 9th, 2017

WestEd, a non-profit educational research agency, has been funded by the US Department of Education to test a new molecular modeling kit, Happy Atoms. Happy Atoms is an interactive chemistry learning experience that consists of a set of physical atoms that connect magnetically to form molecules, and an app that uses image recognition to identify the molecules that you create with the set. WestEd is conducting a study around the effectiveness of using Happy Atoms in the classroom, and we are looking for high school chemistry teachers in California to participate.

As part of the study, teachers will be randomly assigned to either the treatment group (who uses Happy Atoms) or the control group (who uses Happy Atoms at a later date). Teachers in the treatment group will be asked to use the Happy Atoms set in their classrooms for 5 lessons over the course of the fall 2017 semester. Students will complete pre- and post-assessments and surveys around their chemistry content knowledge and beliefs about learning chemistry. WestEd will provide access to all teacher materials, teacher training, and student materials needed to participate.

Participating teachers will receive a stipend of $500-800. You can read more information about the study here:

Please contact Rosanne Luu at or 650.381.6432 if you are interested in participating in this opportunity, or if you have any questions!

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.

2018 Science Instructional Materials Adoption Reviewer Application

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

The California Department of Education and State Board of Education are now accepting applications for reviewers for the 2018 Science Instructional Materials Adoption. The application deadline is 3:00 pm, July 21, 2017. The application is comprehensive, so don’t wait until the last minute to apply.

On Tuesday, May 9, 2017, State Superintendent Tom Torlakson forwarded this recruitment letter to county and district superintendents and charter school administrators.

Review panel members will evaluate instructional materials for use in kindergarten through grade eight, inclusive, that are aligned with the California Next Generation Science Content Standards for California Public Schools (CA NGSS). 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.

Lessons Learned from the NGSS Early Implementer Districts

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

On March 31, 2017, Achieve released two documents examining some lessons learned from the California K-8 Early Implementation Initiative. The initiative began in August 2014 and was developed by the K-12 Alliance at WestEd, with close collaborative input on its design and objectives from the State Board of Education, the California Department of Education, and Achieve.

Eight (8) traditional school districts and two (2) charter management organizations were selected to participate in the initiative, becoming the first districts in California to implement the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Those districts included Galt Joint Union Elementary, Kings Canyon Joint Unified, Lakeside Union, Oakland Unified, Palm Springs Unified, San Diego Unified, Tracy Joint Unified, Vista Unified, Aspire, and High Tech High.

To more closely examine some of the early successes and challenges experienced by the Early Implementer LEAs, Achieve interviewed nine of the ten participating districts and compiled that information into two resources, focusing primarily on professional learning and instructional materials. 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.

Using Online Simulations to Support the NGSS in Middle School Classrooms

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

by Lesley Gates, Loren Nikkel, and Kambria Eastham

Middle school teachers in Kings Canyon Unified School District (KCUSD), a CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative district, have been diligently working on transitioning to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) integrated model for middle school. This year, the teachers focused on building their own knowledge of the Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs). They have been gathering and sharing ideas at monthly collaborative meetings as to how to make sure their students are not just learning about science but that they are actually doing science in their classrooms. Students should be planning and carrying out investigations to gather data for analysis in order to construct explanations. This is best done through hands-on lab experiments. Experimental work is such an important part of the learning of science and education research shows that students learn better and retain more when they are active through inquiry, investigation, and application. A Framework for K-12 Science Education (2011) notes, “…learning about science and engineering involves integration of the knowledge of scientific explanations (i.e., content knowledge) and the practices needed to engage in scientific inquiry and engineering design. Thus the framework seeks to illustrate how knowledge and practice must be intertwined in designing learning experiences in K-12 Science Education” (pg. 11).

Many middle school teachers in KCUSD are facing challenges as they begin implementing these student-driven, inquiry-based NGSS science experiences in their classrooms. First, many of the middle school classrooms at our K-8 school sites are not designed as science labs. Learn More…

Powered By DT Author Box

Written by NGSS Early Implementer

NGSS Early Implementer

In 2015 CSTA began to publish a series of articles written by teachers participating in the NGSS Early Implementation Initiative. This article was written by an educator(s) participating in the initiative. CSTA thanks them for their contributions and for sharing their experience with the science teaching community.

Celestial Highlights: May – July 2017

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

May Through July 2017 with Web Resources for the Solar Eclipse of August 21, 2017

by Robert C. Victor. Twilight sky maps by Robert D. Miller. Graphs of planet rising and setting times by Jeffrey L. Hunt.

In spring and summer 2017, Jupiter is the most prominent “star” in the evening sky, and Venus, even brighter, rules the morning. By mid-June, Saturn rises at a convenient evening hour, allowing both giant planets to be viewed well in early evening until Jupiter sinks low in late September. The Moon is always a crescent in its monthly encounters with Venus, but is full whenever it appears near Jupiter or Saturn in the eastern evening sky opposite the Sun. (In 2017, Full Moon is near Jupiter in April, Saturn in June.) At intervals of 27-28 days thereafter, the Moon appears at a progressively earlier phase at each pairing with the outer planet until its final conjunction, with Moon a thin crescent, low in the west at dusk. You’ll see many beautiful events by just following the Moon’s wanderings at dusk and dawn in the three months leading up to the solar eclipse. Learn More…

Powered By DT Author Box

Written by Robert Victor

Robert Victor

Robert C. Victor was Staff Astronomer at Abrams Planetarium, Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing skywatching opportunities for school children in and around Palm Springs, CA. Robert is a member of CSTA.