How To Teach Vocabulary In An NGSS Classroom: Interactions In Ecosystems

If you haven’t already, be sure to check out last week’s post – Why You Need To Stop Front-Loading Vocabulary. First of all, we need to understand exactly what we are teaching.  As I mentioned before, when we are teaching vocabulary in science, we are most often not just teaching new WORDS but also new MEANINGS or IDEAS or CONCEPTS. We aren’t teaching synonyms to broaden their vocabulary. We’re teaching entire ways of understanding something.  So we need to think about vocabulary differently it’s not just a word and a definition. It is a word, a definition, AND a concept.


And in an NGSS classroom, the concept comes first.


We must teach the CONCEPTS behind the terms first, and we do this through exploration.  The NGSS is all about exploring phenomena by applying the Science and Engineering Practices.  This is old news for those of you who completed the NGSS Your Science Class course in the Science Teacher Tribe Course + Community. (Get on that, if you haven’t yet!).


But when we are talking about vocabulary, that is our first step. Helping students figure out the concept.


Let’s look at a super basic example interactions in ecosystems, or specifically: mutualism.  Mutualism is an ecological interaction between two or more species in which each species benefits.  


If we were front-loading our vocabulary, we would give students the term and the definition – maybe an example – and then move on.  If we were doing a LITTLE better than that, we might start with an example, explain how both species benefit, and then give them the term.


Vocabulary In An NGSS Classroom

In an NGSS classroom, however, our goal is for STUDENTS to come to the conclusion on their own that these two species interact in a way that both benefit.  How do you do this? I’m sure there are many ways you could, so this isn’t a “this is the ONLY way” type of thing. But the way I teach this is by providing students a BUNCH of examples of organism interactions.  My examples are super straight-forward no interpretation.  “The lion and zebra both live in the savannah. The lion hunts and kills the zebra.”  “Bees fly from flower to flower, collecting nectar. As they are collecting nectar, pollen gets stuck on their bodies.  The pollen is carried to the next flower by the bee. This transfer of pollen is how plants reproduce.” (I’m sure I could get more technical there but you get the meaning.) I am very careful NOT to say who benefits or who is harmed I simply state what can be observed.


Then, I ask students to examine ALL of the interactions they were given and identify PATTERNS. (Oh hey, Crosscutting Concept!). They then group the examples by the patterns they observe, and voila – now they have developed an understanding of the CONCEPT of mutualism (and predation, commensalism, parasitism, and competition). They don’t have the vocabulary to describe these interactions scientifically, but they can basically give me the definition, or the meaning of the term.


At this point, when students can communicate the meaning without the terminology, I provide the terminology. I do this first during the initial discussion – applying my label to their explanation or description.  But then, we review through those more traditional approaches the texts, putting vocabulary terms in their own words, generating examples, doing Frayer Models, making posters, creating flaps in our notebooks, whatever your heart desires!


The important thing is students discovered the CONCEPTS before any terms were given. 


This is really the heart of the NGSS – this discovery – and it applies to both content and vocabulary.  Let’s start teaching vocabulary with the same high-quality instructional strategies we use for our science content.


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