Why You Need To Stop Front-Loading Vocabulary


Just like our teaching strategies are changing as we shift to the discovery-centered, NGSS-style of instruction, we also need to change how we teach vocabulary. This can be a touchy subject, I know. For one, we’ve just been doing it the same way forever.  Second, many administrators encourage (or require) a specific approach. And third, sometimes even IEPs place specific demands on vocabulary instruction. That said, what works for vocabulary instruction in an ELA class isn’t always going to be so effective in science, and it’s important that we start recognizing it.  Give me a chance to convince you? 

[If you don’t need convincing but are ready to move on to what you should do instead, check out this post: How To Teach Vocabulary In An NGSS Classroom!]


How We Have Been Teaching Vocabulary

So if your schools were anything like mine and I mean, from my own experiences in middle and high school all the way through student teaching and teaching on my own science vocabulary was often taught at the beginning of a unit.  I’ve heard this referred to as “front-loading,” and the idea is teach kids all of the definitions they will need to know for the unit so that students will understand when they see them in the text or during a lecture, lab, activity, so on and so forth.


The problem here is two-fold. First, half the time students don’t memorize them anyway so it was basically time wasted.  Second, sometimes students memorize the definition without ever truly understanding the meaning. And that is LITERALLY THE WORST POSSIBLE OUTCOME.  Why? Because students appear to understand without actually understanding they think they understand. You think they understand. And everyone just goes on with their lives never understanding.


Along those lines, vocabulary was typically taught by looking up definitions or reading texts.  Students sometimes put the definition into their own words (rarely those words differed drastically from the text) and maybe they added an example (typically pulled from the text or dictionary).  Again, no one is sure what they really understand, and most often, students forget the meaning within a day or two anyway.


Activities to memorize the vocabulary terms followed flashcards, interactive notebook flaps, writing sentences, doing Frayer Models, so on and so forth.  Now, none of these are necessarily bad strategies but used in this way, they aren’t really supporting learning.


Oh, and then when assessment time came, it was a matching or multiple choice quiz or exam where students simply identified which word went with which definition.  Again, you will either have students who totally guess because they have no idea, or those who have memorized without truly understanding the concept behind the term.  Neither option is ideal.


So that was my experience, and my first year or two, I confess, this is how I taught vocabulary. So now that we all know I also fell into this trap, let’s agree: stop doing it.  Stop front-loading your vocabulary. It isn’t helping your students. None of them. Not your ESL or ELLs, not your students with IEPs, no one benefits from front-loading vocabulary in a science classroom. 


I know, I know. You’re going to say that your IEP says you have to, or that it was recommended by this literacy coach or that literacy program.  Here’s the thing front-loading vocabulary when students already understand the concepts could be valuable.  For example, students know what it means to feel “heartbroken.” Teaching them the term “devastated” before they see it in a text CAN be helpful.  They have simply learned a new term for an “old” meaning.


Why Front-Loading Doesn’t Work In Science

Here’s the difference in science most of the time, you are teaching the CONCEPT in addition to the TERM.  That is why front-loading doesn’t work. They can’t truly understand the term and its definition until they understand the concept it is referring to. Front-loading vocabulary in your NGSS science classroom is – (I admit I’m a little hesitant to say this flat-out) – a waste of time.


If I haven’t convinced you yet – hear me out.  We all learn by integrating new information into what we already currently know or believe. I think it’s called schema-theory or something.  We do this from the get-go young children learn what a ball is.  They then learn the word ball, and they can understand when it’s being referenced. Like you can tell a one year old to “go get the ball” and they will bring it to you, even though they can’t use that language themselves yet.  Along those lines, when they see new things that are ball-shaped they say “BALL.” My son called the street lamps BALLS for the longest time because they were round like balls.  He understood the street lamp through his understanding of a BALL. Eventually, kids learn new concepts and then eventually apply new language to those new concepts. 


But they learn the concept first.  It’s the same way in language instruction.  I’m definitely no expert here, but I remember my Spanish teacher once told us not to think about the new Spanish vocabulary as “red = roja” but rather, think of the color itself and then the Spanish word associated.  Our goal wasn’t to think in English and then translate into Spanish, but rather, think of the meaning and come up with the Spanish from it.


So how does that relate to science, again? Well, our students need to know and understand the MEANING before we can give them the term. Just like we need to know RED before we can learn ROJA.  (And please pardon my poor Spanish.)


So, no more front-loading, PUHLEASE.