Getting to grips with the constituent parts of words can promote students’ understanding and use of scientific language

‘Biology is not plants and animals. It is language about plants and animals … Astronomy is not planets and stars. It is a way of talking about planets and stars,’ wrote Neil Postman in Teaching as a Conserving Activity (1979). This quote is a particular favourite of mine as it highlights the importance of the scientific language we use as teachers to explain the natural world to our students.

Throughout my teaching career I have been fascinated by the complex language of science and as a fledgling science teacher I was the KS3 science literacy coordinator. Cue many hours collating science words and definitions. It was then that I became aware of how students had to learn the meanings of an inordinate number of words just to be able to access the science they were learning.

So how can we introduce key vocabulary in science? Many of us display keywords at the beginning of a lesson, and encourage students to write down the meaning of the words. However, this can take a considerable amount of time and, with the pressure to teach content and concepts, we can feel limited in the time we can allocate to this.

I would also argue this is not always the best way to embed deep understanding of a word and help students become fluent in the language of science. However, building a greater understanding of the structure and origin of words can support the learning of new vocabulary, and aid understanding of science more generally.

Illustration of female student with cable in her hand, blocks of Greek/Latin root words on her right, blocks of English science related words on here left; the cables link the Greek/Latin origins to the English words

Source: © Claudia Flandoli

The structure of words

Morphology is the study of the different parts of a word: prefix, root, suffix.

Prefix – appears at the beginning of the word, eg hypo- (below), hyper- (above), cyclo- (ring), poly- (many), endo- (within), exo- (outside of).

Root – words that have a meaning standing alone. They often form the longest part of a word. Science vocabulary often has Greek or Latin roots, eg chloro (green), iso (equal), allo (other), com (together)

Suffix – appears at the end of the word and provides additional information, eg -ane (saturated hydrocarbon), -phillic (love, affection), -phobic (hate, fear), -lysis (decompose, breakdown).

Help students to get to grips with new words by breaking them down into their constituent parts. Point out links between new words and vocabulary that is already familiar. Support students to see how the words themselves link to the concepts they describe.

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Knowing the word origin or etymology of a term can also help to identify its roots and can make it is easier to understand its use in science. They might also be related to common terms students use in everyday life. A useful approach is to look at different families of words, for example:

  • Thermometer
  • Exothermic
  • Endothermic
  • Thermal
  • Geothermal
  • Thermoregulation
  • Thermistor

All these words come from the Greek root word ‘therm’ meaning heat, therefore they are related to heat.

By highlighting the links to the root words students can develop a deeper understanding of vocabulary in science.

Defining the roots of photosynthesis is possibly one of the most discussed examples, as illustrated in this video clip.

In your class

Download a worksheet on word parts as MS Word or pdf

Strategies to teach unfamiliar scientific vocabulary

  1. Say the word to students using its correct pronunciation – quite tricky at times as a Northerner living in London!
  2. Write it on the board – it is vital to write it out clearly, and I get students to write the word larger than usual and leave plenty of space around it.
  3. Break the word down into its parts – I use different coloured pens for this.
  4. Repeat the word one more time emphasising the different parts of the word – I get the students to chant out loud along with me so they can sound out the words correctly.
  5. Discuss the etymology of the word – it is useful if you can link the word to everyday language that the students are familiar with.
  6. Give an example sentence using the word – ask students to write their own sentences using the new words they’ve learned.
  7. Regularly reinforce the new vocabulary by revisiting it – use word games, such as bingo, hot seat and dominoes, or set spelling tests.

This article is part of the series 7 simple rules for science teaching, developed in response to the EEF’s Improving secondary science guidance. It supports rule 6b, Show the links between words and their composite parts.