Academic journal article Science and Children

From "Plants Don't Eat" to "Plants Are Producers" the Role of Vocabulary in Scientific Sense-Making

Academic journal article Science and Children

From "Plants Don't Eat" to "Plants Are Producers" the Role of Vocabulary in Scientific Sense-Making

Article excerpt

While young children find it fun to learn fancy new words, the purpose of vocabulary instruction is not just about teaching the definitions of technical terms that are used in science. Rather, what is important is that all of our youngest learners are able to use vocabulary words as "tools" to communicate--to speak, listen, read, and write--about their science learning (Nagy and Townsend 2012).

There is substantial evidence that oral language and vocabulary (i.e., word meanings) should be a focus of instruction in elementary classrooms to promote equitable participation in science learning (NRC 2012). The Common Core State Standards speaking and listening standards expect children to have conversations, and the language standards expect children to learn and use sophisticated content-area vocabulary beginning in kindergarten. Similarly, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) expect young students to engage in the practices of science (e.g., argumentation), requiring the use of disciplinary language.

So, the critical question for teachers to ask is not whether children know the meanings of a list of science vocabulary words but rather whether and how new vocabulary can be integrated into science instruction to support children's ability to engage in science practices and communicate about their developing understanding of science concepts and ideas.

When we think about vocabulary learning, we think about the word itself as only the tip of the iceberg (see Figure 1). Children can know how to say a word without a deep understanding of the underlying concept (e.g., a child might say the word molecule but have very little understanding of the concept of a molecule). Likewise, children can have an initial understanding of a concept without knowing the scientific word to label this idea.

Supporting students in using scientific vocabulary to explain phenomena requires both explicit and implicit instruction (Neuman and Wright 2014). Explicit instruction includes purposeful selection of vocabulary, providing child-friendly explanations of these words, and giving children opportunities to practice using words in meaningful contexts. Implicit instruction includes ensuring a high-quality environment where children are exposed to sophisticated vocabulary across the school day. These strategies hold for English Language Learners (ELLs) who need opportunities to learn and use new words in multiple contexts.

As part of our SOLID Start project (Science, Oral Language, and Literacy Development from the Start of School), we developed kindergarten curricula to support children in building deep science understanding while simultaneously learning to use new science vocabulary. The curricula promoted five instructional strategies: Ask, Explore, Read, Write, and Discuss. When teachers used these curricula, children were significantly more likely to provide scientific explanations (i.e., making and supporting claims) and use science vocabulary when responding to questions compared to their peers in classrooms that did not use the curricula. For example, when asked, "Ella thinks the ant is a producer. Do you agree with her?" SOLID Start kindergarteners responded, "No. 'Cuz they're herbivores... they eat plants" or "No. Cause He's a consumer... he eats food" (Wright and Gotwals 2017).

In this article, we describe ways that we used these strategies to support kindergartners' science talk, especially focusing on use of vocabulary, during a series of lessons about food chains.

SOLID Start Food Chain Lesson Sequence

This series of lessons is part of a kindergarten unit on "Plants, Animals, and their Environment" aligned to a cluster of NGSS kindergarten life science performance expectations. Prior to this series of lessons, students set up an investigation growing plants in different conditions to determine what plants needed to survive. In addition, students made daily observations of ant farms to better understand ants' needs and how they change their environment. …

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