3 Scientific words with dual meanings

There is often a conflict between scientific language and the everyday meanings that students give to words. For example, they think of the word ‘work’ as being linked to employment or to activity in the fields. However, they need to understand that in science, ‘doing work’ has a very specific meaning and involves moving a force over a distance. Other words like this are ‘energy’, ‘tissue’ and ‘force’. You will be able to think of others across the curriculum.

It is helpful to explain the origins of words to your students. ‘The fundamental unit of life’ is about cells, and ‘cells’ was first used as a scientific term by Robert Hooke when he first looked at a piece of cork through a microscope in 1665.

There are many new words associated with the study of cells and you need to make sure that your students have the chance to practise using them. Activity 2 is for you do on your own or with a colleague in preparation for teaching. Activity 3 is for you to do with your students and Case Study 1 shows how Teacher Padam introduced his class to scientific terms by creating a word wall.

Activity 2: Identifying difficult words at the start of the cells topic

This activity is for you do on your own or with a colleague as part of your planning to teach ‘The fundamental unit of life’. The purpose of the activity is to check your own understanding of the scientific terms in this topic and to help you to think about the difficulties that your students will encounter.

  • Go through the chapter in your textbook that you are teaching and write down all the technical words associated with learning about cells.
  • With a highlighter pen or pencil, highlight the ones that students might have met before but in a completely different context.
  • Underline the specialist scientific words that will be new to them.
  • Make yourself a glossary – a list of words with their definitions. Try to write each of the definitions as simply as possible. If you can think of any analogies that might be helpful, write them down as well. For example, the cell membrane behaves like a sieve. The size of the holes is such that some molecules can pass through, but some cannot.

Keep this glossary to use with your class when you start to use the new words or the words that have specific scientific meanings. You might encourage your students to develop their own glossaries.

Activity 3: Key words

The key words are the most important words in the topic that your students need to know about. Key words can be names, processes or concepts. Names are the easiest key words to understand. Processes and concept key words can be harder for students to understand. Each chapter will have lots of names. There are less process words per chapter and only one or two concept words.

Make a key word list for the chapter that you are working on. A good key word list will include a range of each different type. For example, for the cells chapter, some key words would be:

  • Names: ‘nucleus’, ‘endoplasmic reticulum’, ‘plastid’, ‘mitochondria’, ‘vacuole’ …
  • Processes: ‘reproduction’, ‘osmosis’, ‘membrane biogenesis’ …
  • Concepts: ‘adaptation’ …

Approximately 10–15 key words per chapter will usually be enough. Lower-attaining students should have a less difficult but not as long set of key words.

The key words should be given to your students at the very start of each chapter. One way to do this is to write them on a poster that is kept by the main blackboard. Your students will be able to see them every lesson. They should be used and referred to regularly (little and often) throughout the chapter as part of your normal teaching.

If you have used your key words well, by the end of the topic your students will be familiar with them. They should be using them accurately and routinely to communicate their ideas about the topic to others. You will notice a big improvement in their explanations and understanding of the chapter.

When you have done this a few times your students will start to be able to make their own key word lists, they can share these in the class and use them for revision.

Case Study 1: Creating a key word wall for ‘The fundamental unit of life’ chapter

Teacher Padam created a word wall of key words with another colleague who was teaching the same chapter.

In Class IX, some of my students come from homes where there are books and their parents talk to them about their school work. However, quite a few come from poor backgrounds. They only use books when in school and don’t have chance to talk about school at home. Their attendance is not very good as they are often required to stay at home and work for their family.

I realised that our next topic, ‘The fundamental unit of life’, has many new and difficult words. With a colleague, we picked out 15 scientific words from the topic to be our key words. We wrote each of them with a felt pen on a piece of paper. I stuck the pieces of paper on one of the walls of the classroom. I left enough spaces between the words for us to add definitions.

When Class IX came in they were intrigued to see the words on the wall. So I started by telling them: ‘Work in pairs and make three lists: those you know the meaning of, those you have never heard of before and those you have heard of but are not sure what the word means.’ I told them that as we learnt about cells, we would return to the list and by the end of the topic the aim was to be able to put all the words in the first list.

Near the end of the chapter, I asked my students to find their lists and to check how many of the words they now knew. Walking round the class, I was able to see which students were still feeling unconfident about some of the words, so that in my next lesson I could do some more activities around those words to help them.

Top tips for decoding

4 Speaking and listening in science