Unpopular Opinion: Front-loading vocabulary is an ineffective strategy to develop student understanding of scientific terminology. Despite what we all learned in our education courses, front-loading vocabulary doesn’t work in science classes. Why? Students often are lacking the fundamental conceptual understanding of the science ideas they are meant to describe. Teaching vocabulary before students learn the science concepts is simply a waste of time.
Moving Away From Front-Loading Vocabulary
Shifting to the Next Generation Science Standards and three-dimensional teaching requires fundamental changes to our instructional strategies. It’s no surprise, then, that how we teach vocabulary likewise must change. We must let go of our “vocabulary days” at the beginning of units, our “glossary definitions” students copy before a lab experience, and vocabulary quizzes that center on match and label tasks.
This can be a touchy subject, I know. We often have our “reasons” for front-loading vocabulary. For some of us, we’ve just been doing it the same way forever, and change is hard. Or you may have an administrator encouraging (or requiring) a specific approach. The hardest to challenges to overcome are the legal (is that the right word?) ones — the fact that sometimes even IEPs place specific demands on vocabulary instruction.
That said, while front-loading vocabulary might work in an English-Language Arts class, where the goal is to build “variety” in the words we choose to describe concepts we already understand, this just doesn’t work in science. It’s important that we start recognizing the differences these disciplines demand. 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!]
Traditional Vocabulary Instruction
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. This is typically 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 them when they encounter them in the text or during a lecture, lab, activity, so on and so forth.
The Problem With Front-Loading Vocabulary
There are two primary problems with this approach.
First, oftentimes, our students don’t memorize them anyway… so whatever time we spent trying to drill them into student heads was basically time wasted. Our brains “grasp onto” what is relevant and important — and a vocabulary list provides no context and no connection. Our students’ brains are just not wired to learn vocabulary in this way.
Beyond that, if our students do happen to remember the textbook definition, they often don’t actually understand its meaning! And that is probably the worst possible outcome for us as educators, because our students then appear to have learned without actually having learned.
They think they understand. You think they understand. And everyone just goes on with their lives… never understanding.
The Traditional Strategies That Are Failing You
The timing of our vocabulary instruction is not the only problem, of course. Our traditional strategies (paired with ineffective timing) are likewise an issue.
Consider your own experience learning vocabulary in middle and high school. I know that when I was in school – and even my first few years teaching in my own classroom – vocabulary was typically taught by looking up definitions or reading texts. Sometimes students were asked to put the definition into their own words (and let’s be real, rarely did those words differ drastically from the text). Sometimes, they added an example (again, typically pulled from the text or dictionary — or now, Google).
And what did that tell us? Not much. I could tell you my students were great at copying something, but I couldn’t say one way or another how well they understood each term (or the concept behind it). I certainly couldn’t tell you if they could use it or identify it in context. And since the words weren’t relevant at that moment anyway, most of my students forgot the meaning within a day or two. It wasn’t a great use of time.
But wait, you might be thinking. Didn’t you provide practice afterwards? Sure. Activities to memorize the vocabulary terms followed the initial glossary-definition-work — maybe some flashcards, or interactive notebook flaps, or writing sentences, or doing Frayer Models, so on and so forth. You get the idea. But the thing is, while none of these are necessarily bad strategies, used in this way — following a “front-load” of definitions — they weren’t really supporting learning of the science ideas. They were still just words to memorize, devoid of context, true meaning, real understanding.
And I still had no clue what my students actually knew. They could copy the definition of condensation. They could give me an example. But did they actually understand what was happening when a gas became a liquid? Did they understand the changes in energy and matter, what caused it to occur, or how that concept can help us understand the natural world beyond the pages of our textbook?
Of course, then assessment time came. And students were given matching or multiple choice quizzes, pairing definitions and terms. Regurgitating what they did manage to memorize — or choosing based on a process of elimination (or luck). 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.
It’s Time For A New Approach
That was my experience as a student and as a young teacher. My first year or two, I totally admit, that is how I taught vocabulary. So now that we all know that I also fell into this trap, let’s consider: can we pleeease stop doing it?
Let’s stop front-loading our vocabulary. Let’s stop putting words ahead of understanding. Because it isn’t helping your students. Not one of them. Not your ESL or ELLs, not your students with IEPs, not even your advanced students (who may be excellent memorizers). 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, or you’ve just always done it this way and your students are “fine.”
Here’s the thing — front-loading might work in some situations. Front-loading vocabulary instruction when students already understand a concept may hold value, as students already have something to build on. 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. Front-loading supports their understanding of a text, and it builds on what they already know.
But that isn’t what happens in science class.
Why Front-Loading Vocabulary Fails In Science
There is a key difference between learning a new word for “heartbroken” and learning a scientific term. You see, most of the time, in a science class, you are teaching a CONCEPT in addition to a TERM.
And that is exactly why front-loading fails.
Our students can’t truly understand a term and its definition until they understand the concept it is referring to. Front-loading vocabulary in your NGSS science classroom is (and I get that this sounds harsh but) a complete 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. (See schema theory.)
We do this from the get-go. Imagine a young child touching, rolling, and throwing a ball. The child now knows what a ball is, learning from their experience with it. They then learn the word ball, and they can understand when it’s being referenced. You might 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 downtown balls for the longest time — because they were round like balls and that fit his understanding. He understood the street lamp through his understanding of a ball. Over time, new information is added to that understanding — kids differentiated between soccer balls, tennis balls, basketballs. They realize not every round-thing is a ball. And that footballs aren’t spheres but are still kind of considered balls. This is how we learn. We uncover a new concept, and then we apply new language to that new concept.
The key thing is, we 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 (the schema, the image in our head) and then recall the Spanish term for it.
So how does that relate to science, again?
Well, our students need to know and understand the concept before they can acquire the term. Just like we need to know RED before we can learn ROJA, our students need to discover the science idea before they can understand, remember, and use the science term.
So, no more front-loading, please!?
Your Next Steps For Vocabulary Instruction
If you’re ready to dig into what you can do instead, check out How To Teach Vocabulary In An NGSS Classroom.