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 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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CSTA Annual Conference Early Bird Rates End July 14

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

by Jessica Sawko

Teachers engaged in workshop activity

Teachers engaging in hands-on learning during a workshop at the 2016 CSTA conference.

Don’t miss your chance to register at the early bird rate for the 2017 CSTA Conference – the early-bird rate closes July 14. Need ideas on how to secure funding for your participation? Visit our website for suggestions, a budget planning tool, and downloadable justification letter to share with your admin. Want to take advantage of the early rate – but know your district will pay eventually? Register online today and CSTA will reimburse you when we receive payment from your district/employer. (For more information on how that works contact Zi Stair in the office for details – 916-979-7004 or

New Information Now Available On-line:

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.

Goodbye Outgoing and Welcome Incoming CSTA Board Members

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

Jill Grace

Jill Grace, CSTA President, 2017-2019

On July 1, 2017 five CSTA members concluded their service and four new board members joined the ranks of the CSTA Board of Directors. CSTA is so grateful for all the volunteer board of directors who contribute hours upon hours of time and energy to advance the work of the association. At the June 3 board meeting, CSTA was able to say goodbye to the outgoing board members and welcome the incoming members.

This new year also brings with it a new president for CSTA. As of July 1, 2017 Jill Grace is the president of the California Science Teachers Association. Jill is a graduate of California State University, Long Beach, a former middle school science teacher, and is currently a Regional Director with the K-12 Alliance @ WestEd where she works with California NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative districts and charter networks in the San Diego area.

Outgoing Board Members

  • Laura Henriques (President-Elect: 2011 – 2013, President: 2013 – 2015, Past President: 2015 – 2017)
  • Valerie Joyner (Region 1 Director: 2009 – 2013, Primary Director: 2013 – 2017)
  • Mary Whaley (Informal Science Education Director: 2013 – 2017)
  • Sue Campbell (Middle School/Jr. High Director: 2015 – 2017)
  • Marcus Tessier (2-Year College Director: 2015 – 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.

Finding My Student’s Motivation of Learning Through Engineering Tasks

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

by Huda Ali Gubary and Susheela Nath

It’s 8:02 and the bell rings. My students’ walk in and pick up an entry ticket based on yesterday’s lesson and homework. My countdown starts for students to begin…3, 2, 1. Ten students are on task and diligently completing the work, twenty are off task with behaviors ranging from talking up a storm with their neighbors to silently staring off into space. This was the start of my classes, more often than not. My students rarely showed the enthusiasm for a class that I had eagerly prepared for. I spent so much time searching for ways to get my students excited about the concepts they were learning. I wanted them to feel a connection to the lessons and come into my class motivated about what they were going to learn next. I would ask myself how I could make my class memorable where the kids were in the driver’s seat of learning. Incorporating engineering made this possible. Learn More…

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Written by NGSS Early Implementer

NGSS Early Implementer

In 2015 CSTA began to publish a series of articles written by teachers participating in the California NGSS k-8 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.

State Schools Chief Tom Torlakson Unveils Updated Recommended Literature List

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

SACRAMENTO—State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson unveiled an addition of 285 award-winning titles to the Recommended Literature: Prekindergarten Through Grade Twelve list.

“The books our students read help broaden their perspectives, enhance their knowledge, and fire their imaginations,” Torlakson said. “The addition of these award-winning titles represents the state’s continued commitment to the interests and engagement of California’s young readers.”

The Recommended Literature: Prekindergarten Through Grade Twelve list is a collection of more than 8,000 titles of recommended reading for children and adolescents. Reflecting contemporary and classic titles, including California authors, this online list provides an exciting range of literature that students should be reading at school and for pleasure. Works include fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama to provide for a variety of tastes, interests, and abilities. 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:

Teaching Science in the Time of Alternative Facts – Why NGSS Can Help (somewhat)

Posted: Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

by Peter A’Hearn

The father of one of my students gave me a book: In the Beginning: Compelling Evidence for Creation and the Flood by Walt Brown, Ph. D. He had heard that I was teaching Plate Tectonics and wanted me to consider another perspective. The book offered the idea that the evidence for plate tectonics could be better understood if we considered the idea that beneath the continent of Pangaea was a huge underground layer of water that suddenly burst forth from a rift between the now continents of Africa and South America. The waters shot up and the continents hydroplaned apart on the water layer to their current positions. The force of the movement pushed up great mountain ranges which are still settling to this day, resulting in earthquakes along the margins of continents. This had happened about 6,000 years ago and created a great worldwide flood. Learn More…

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Written by Peter AHearn

Peter AHearn

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