Talking like scientists: how to teach science vocabulary in primary school

By Ellie Caple posted 07-12-2023 14:41


@Ellie Caple and @Rebekah Edwards are evidence advocates at Tudor Grange Research School - this article originally appeared here.

We live in a world where scientific literacy has never been more important: a social media rich world, awash with fake news and unsubstantiated opinions. Being able to access scientific literature, critically evaluate scientific concepts and form reasoned opinions is not an aspiration for our young people; it is a basic requirement for flourishing lives. How else would they be able to make an informed decision about, say, whether to have a vaccination?

This journey begins in primary school, and the EEF’s new Primary Science Guidance Report is a fantastic resource for science leads, class teachers and any staff with leadership responsibility in primary schools.

Its first recommendation is that we develop pupils’ scientific vocabulary: ensuring that young people understand the language of science is an important step to their active engagement in science. Here's a quote from the report...

“Scientific vocabulary can often be confusing and abstract, making it difficult for pupils to fully understand and use.”

At Tudor Grange Academies Trust, science teachers followed the report’s advice to identify science specific vocabulary. We did this by working collaboratively, working across year groups and schools. We made sure to ask secondary teachers to the words primary colleagues identified, and vice versa. This gave us confidence that our transitions are carefully planned, and progress smoothly, avoiding needless repetition or excessive jumps.

The science curriculum allows many opportunities for revisiting vocabulary, but we wanted to ensure that this was planned, repeated engagement rather than accidental repetition. For example, the topic 'Light' is introduced in Year 3 and then revisited in Year 6. Which words should we introduce in Year 3? Which additional words would the children need to learn in Year 6? How would we ensure that these words were retained during Years 4 and 5?

Key words are taught explicitly, using a standardised approach which highlights the phonology and morphology of the word. For example, looking at prefixes such as photo- meaning light, to better understand the term photosynthesis or suffixes such as ‑meter, meaning to measure, such as when using a thermometer to measure temperature. This allows teacher to connect different concepts and build on prior knowledge.

These words are given a clear definition, their use is modelled in a sentence and (where appropriate) linked to an action:

This word is then reinforced throughout the lesson, with planned opportunities to use it in discussion and questioning. It is then revisited systematically through future retrieval activities.

Explicitly teaching scientific vocabulary enables children – and the adults they will become – to understand and use this language confidently. It allows them to access the scientific literature they will encounter in the news, social media, product warning labels, election campaigns, advertisements and so much more. Equipping our children to talk like scientists is a crucial step on the path to becoming the scientists of the future.

But it is not the final step and our conversations about vocabulary led to cross-phase conversations what it means to be a scientist. As the report says:

“We are all – in the broadest sense – scientists, but high-quality teaching at an early age does much to support pupil attainment that can facilitate a pathway towards further study in science, and foster aspirations to be scientists.”

One outcome of these conversations was the identification of the six skills we feel are central to ​‘being a scientist’. Each has an accompanying image to visualise the science curriculum intent, and we share these with children so they understand that we see them as scientists, and what this means:

We are developing the use of these in curriculum planning documents across both primary and secondary phases to focus attention on our goal of developing scientists. In this, we have been helped by the rest of the EEF’s report, which goes onto recommend that we encourage pupils to think, write and work scientifically, and we’ll be sharing more blogs about our work in the coming weeks. Sign up to our newsletter here, follow us on Twitter here and see all of of our news here.

The latest episode of STEM Learning's STEM Insights Podcast focuses on the EEF's report - find links to listen here and tell us your thoughts in the Primary STEM group.

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1 comment



15-12-2023 10:19

A very useful article with clear examples. Thank you. I'd like to add that when teaching key science vocabulary it helps to compare English words with those in the home languages of any EAL pupils. You can ask: Does it look the same? (e.g.spelling, length of word) Does it sound the same? (e.g. word stress, phonemes). It's interesting that many scientific words are similar in several languages.