Communicating in science is a key achievement aim of Science in the New Zealand Curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2007). Students are expected to develop knowledge of the vocabulary, numeric and symbol systems and conventions of science and to use this knowledge to communicate about their own and others’ ideas.
Evolving wall displays can contribute to building connections because they can be revisited and they endure. Wall displays are also useful as a means for students to interrogate their own ideas (Cowie, Moreland & Otrel-Cass, 2013). Wall displays expand the time students devote to thinking about the science ideas and practices they are learning because they view and talk about what is displayed with peers and their families. Bringing family members into class and talking to them about wall displays helps to connect learning between school and family.
Teachers need to ensure that the language they use is accessible to students and at the same time help students develop a ‘scientific vocabulary’ (Boyes & Stanisstreet, 1990). They need to decide when and how to introduce new words. Harlen and Qualter (2014) propose that words should be introduced when they would fill a gap and when there is a need to describe and explain something that has been experienced.
This project was undertaken over one term to investigate how teachers at different levels of schooling used and adapted Science Learning Hub (SLH) resources for their science teaching. The project involved six teachers from four schools comprising year levels 3 to 10. Two teachers were specialist science teachers. Data was collected through videotapes, audiotapes, observations, field notes, interviews, student work and teaching materials.
This research brief focuses on how teachers highlight scientific vocabulary to help build a shared vocabulary through, for example, the use of wall displays, modelling how to use words appropriately, using words in multiple contexts and brainstorming.
Year 3 and 4: Wall displays showcase and anchor scientific vocabulary
Several teachers made use of wall displays to highlight vocabulary associated with the topic they were teaching. Mary and Cilla managed wall displays related to the sense of taste. They posted the vocabulary pertinent to developing their year 3 and 4 students’ understandings, the activities they did and other material on the class wall at the end of each lesson. In this way, they built up a record of the science the students accomplished, the language they were using, the tasks they had undertaken and student thinking about the topic.
Mary and Cilla encouraged students to bring their parents into class to see the wall display and to share their learning. Bob’s mother asked, “Umami, what is this umami? Apparently that is what we had for dinner last night! What is this?” Bob used the posters and vocabulary of taste to explain umami.
Year 5 and 6: Wall displays showcase and anchor scientific vocabulary
Mila and her year 5 and 6 students curated a wall display related to the New Zealand longfin eel.
It had several sections including a display of student drawings of the longfin eel, words to know and a ‘we wonder’ section. Over the course of the unit, students found out the meanings of words and posted their description by the word. They added their questions as they arose.
The interactive nature of Mila’s wall ensured student interest throughout the entire unit. Adding descriptions of ‘words to know’ helped students build their understandings of the key terms. Cilla encouraged the students to use the words as much as possible in their verbal and written communication.
Year 7 and 8: Using words in multiple contexts
Teachers used the relevant words in several contexts and modelled how to use the words appropriately. For instance, Gail used an interactive whiteboard (IWB) to show the class the interactive
Gail led a discussion where she talked about each word on the display. Students had opportunities to say the words aloud and what they thought they meant. ‘Segment’, ‘clitellum’ and ‘prostomium’ were picked up on quickly. These were particularly salient as the students had been observing earthworms and did not have this vocabulary to describe these features.
When students observed earthworms for a second time, Gail gave them a printout of the IWB labelled diagram. This placed the vocabulary within easy access for each student. Gail encouraged students to use the correct terms to describe features they were observing.
Gail’s students drew a diagram of their earthworm, and many labelled the features using the correct terms showing they could use the new vocabulary). Additionally, Gail’s use of a graphic organiser for their observations provided students with direction for observation.
Year 7 and 8: When to use new words
The right time to introduce new words depends on whether or not the word is needed at that time or if the word will help students link related ideas/concepts to each other. For example, Cath introduced the terms ‘producer’, ‘consumer’ and ‘decomposer’ to her students before they began learning about food webs. She posted these three key terms and their meanings in large font on the wall so students could see them from across the room. Cath reasoned that she needed to introduce these terms early on as her students would not be able to understand food webs without an understanding of these interlinked concepts.
She encouraged the students to include these in their food webs from the beginning. Cath’s feedback and discussion focused on these words. For example, when Abigail created the food chain ‘plant plankton > shellfish > crayfish/larger fish > octopus’, Cilla commented, “Great – started with a producer.”
Year 9: Encouraging science talk brainstorming
Teachers provided opportunities to brainstorm ideas about science and encouraged students to talk about the natural world. For example, Carla began her lesson on observation with year 9 students with a brainstorm about ‘poor science’. The brainstorm got students thinking and talking about science. They first brainstormed orally in pairs, and then Carla solicited their ideas to build a class brainstorm on the whiteboard. Ideas included not testing enough, not recoding data, not doing fair tests, testing more than one variable at a time, lack of integrity and not following rules.
Scientific words are best introduced when the students have experienced the event or phenomenon that they represent. The right time to introduce new words depends on whether the word is needed at that time and to help students link related ideas/concepts to each other. Several teachers made the use of wall displays to highlight vocabulary associated with the topic they were teaching. This use of visual reinforcement supported comprehension and remembering. Teachers also used the relevant words in several contexts and modelled how to use the words appropriately. The teachers provided opportunities to brainstorm ideas about science and encouraged students to talk about the natural world.
Boyes, E. & Stanisstreet, M. (1990). Misunderstandings of ‘law’ and ‘conservation’: A study of pupils’ meanings for these terms. SSR, 72(258), 51–57.
Cowie, B., Moreland, J. & Otrel-Cass, K. (2013). Expanding notions of assessment for learning: Inside science and technology primary classrooms. Rotterdam/Boston/Taipei: Sense Publishers.
Harlen, W. & Qualter, A. (2014). The teaching of science in the primary school (6th Ed.). London: Routledge.
Ministry of Education. (2007). The New Zealand Curriculum. Wellington, NZ: Learning Media.