Department of Teaching, Learning and Teacher Education


Date of this Version



Science and Children 51:1 (September 2013), pp. 50-53.


Copyright 2013 NSTA. Used by permission.


In recent years, educators have become ever more aware of the critical role that vocabulary knowledge plays in the academic lives of their students. Vocabulary knowledge is fundamental to the comprehension of text and is most effective when it relates new words to students’ existing vocabulary and background knowledge. Effective vocabulary instruction provides multiple exposures through rich and varied activities that are meaningful and relevant to English learning (EL) students (Marzano 2004). This helps them gain ownership and understanding of the words, instead of just learning them well enough to pass a test. Nagy and Scott (2000) noted that “knowing a vocabulary word means being able to do things with it” (p. 273).

The principles of effective vocabulary instruction recommended for language arts can be applied to the content area of science. However, science instruction can be especially challenging for EL students who are faced with learning both the language of science and the English language at the same time. Even though EL students bring a wealth of cultural and linguistic knowledge with them to school, research has shown that these students tend to lag behind their native- English speaking peers in their levels of academic achievement (Echevarria, Short, and Powers 2006). EL students are less likely to have the vocabulary needed to comprehend informational text, so instruction that helps build both general academic and content-specific vocabulary knowledge is particularly critical while promoting language development.

Even EL students who appear fluent in English frequently need assistance in learning the academic language of science. The vocabulary of science can be particularly problematic. Words such as work, table, and wave take on meanings specific from those of everyday usage. Additionally, vocabulary words such as hypothesis and analysis have precise meanings in science that differ from the manner in which the words are used in everyday life (Powers and Stanfield 2009).

The goal of this article is to briefly discuss vocabulary instructional strategies and describe how they actively engage EL students in the science vocabulary learning process. Each vocabulary strategy offers students the opportunity to build and extend upon their understanding of a word’s meaning and to make personal connections with the science content. Marzano (2004) suggests that vocabulary instruction is most effective when it targets academic terms that students will encounter throughout their reading materials.

All of the vocabulary words and concepts introduced throughout this article were taken from the district’s science program for fourth graders. Even though the vocabulary words were selected from the textbook, these strategies can easily be used with informational books. Examples from the classroom experiences are used to illustrate each instructional strategy; however, all of these strategies can be used at all grade-levels.