Academic journal article Science Scope

The Many Faces of Word Walls in Middle School Science Classrooms: Variability in Function and Content

Academic journal article Science Scope

The Many Faces of Word Walls in Middle School Science Classrooms: Variability in Function and Content

Article excerpt

Word walls have long been a part of the classroom environment in elementary schools and, more recently, have found a place in middle school classrooms as well. In regard to middle school science classrooms, Jackson and her colleagues have provided useful information for science teachers about implementing interactive word walls as effective instructional tools (2011; 2013). They state that continual exposure to keywords with accompanying visual clues through interactive word walls can help students develop a deeper understanding of science concepts and increase science-related vocabulary. We add to this body of work about word walls by broadening the scope of academic vocabulary to include not only technical scientific terms, but also general academic vocabulary terms that are often challenging to students, especially English language learners. In addition, we show how word walls can be used for a variety of science concepts and for different purposes, as well as how students can create electronic versions of word walls with what we call vocabulary vodcasts or digital word walls. We first provide rationale for the use of word walls in middle school science classrooms by discussing the existing knowledge base about the language of science and science vocabulary.

Science vocabulary and word walls

Science educators are aware that science texts are often written on a higher reading level than students can handle independently. These challenging texts contain unique vocabulary, new symbols, and specific formulas to explain science topics--all of which are embedded in expository formats, such as cause-and-effect relationships, as well as problems with accompanying solutions. In particular, science vocabulary is comprised not only of terms representing important concepts, but also general academic terms and phrases that are essential for communicating and learning science concepts.

There are several interesting features of science vocabulary. For example, the field of science contains a vast array of different vocabularies given the variety of disciplines within this field, such as biology, physics, medicine, and astronomy, to name a few. Another feature is the use of Greek and Latin roots found in many science terms, roots that are easily taught to students. For example, if students learn that the root thermo means heat, they can then use this information to independently figure out the meanings of words and phrases, such as thermometer, thermodynamics, and thermal pollution. Another feature of science vocabulary includes terms used within specific science disciplines, such as binomial nomenclature in biology (Carcharodon carcharias for great white shark) and the special nomenclature in chemistry consisting of letter symbols and numbers for chemicals (e.g., NaCl, [H.sub.2]O). Even measurement units are represented with letter-and-symbol abbreviations (e.g., mL, kg, cm).

Finally, science texts contain general academic vocabulary "that hold the content-specific technical words together" (Zwiers 2008, p. 22). While general academic vocabulary terms are found across different disciplines, these words are just as critical for scientific learning and include words and phrases such as distinguish between, clarify, analyze the data, adapt, identify, and significant. Teaching such general academic vocabulary words supports the Common Core State Standard Connections for the ELA/Literacy. For example, RST.6-8.1 asks that students cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of scientific and technical texts. Through teaching general academic vocabulary words, we can help students meet this standard. To achieve this, we look at the Next Generation Science Standards for science and engineering practices. To achieve science literacy through an inquiry exercise, students are asked to construct explanations and design solutions; engage in argument from evidence; and obtain, evaluate, and communicate information using general academic and technical vocabulary. …

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