elementary preservice teachers’ science vocabulary: knowledge and application

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  • Elementary Preservice Teachers Science Vocabulary:Knowledge and Application

    Sarah J. Carrier

    Published online: 11 March 2012

    The Association for Science Teacher Education, USA 2012

    Abstract Science vocabulary knowledge plays a role in understanding scienceconcepts, and science knowledge is measured in part by correct use of science

    vocabulary (Lee et al. in J Res Sci Teach 32(8):797816, 1995). Elementary school

    students have growing vocabularies and many are learning English as a secondary

    language or depend on schools to learn academic English. Teachers must have a

    clear understanding of science vocabulary in order to communicate and evaluate

    these understandings with students. The present study measured preservice teachers

    vocabulary knowledge during a science methods course and documented their use

    of science vocabulary during peer teaching. The data indicate that the course pos-

    itively impacted the preservice teachers knowledge of select elementary science

    vocabulary; however, use of science terms was inconsistent in microteaching

    lessons. Recommendations include providing multiple vocabulary instruction

    strategies in teacher preparation.

    Keywords Vocabulary Elementary Science Preservice teachers


    Science vocabulary knowledge contributes to understanding science concepts, and

    students science knowledge is measured in part by their comprehension and use of

    science vocabulary (Glen and Dotger 2009; Goldschmidt and Jung 2011; Lee et al.

    1995). While background knowledge and conceptual understanding are key

    components of vocabulary use, elementary students school science vocabulary

    growth depends in part on their teachers knowledge and use of science vocabulary.

    Unfortunately many preservice teachers memories of science vocabulary

    S. J. Carrier (&)North Carolina State University, 2310 Stinson Dr., Raleigh, NC, USA

    e-mail: sarah_carrier@ncsu.edu


    J Sci Teacher Educ (2013) 24:405425

    DOI 10.1007/s10972-012-9270-7

  • instruction have consisted of copying vocabulary words and definitions. In spite of

    the powerful impact of vocabulary in the science classroom, there is evidence that

    effective vocabulary instruction is not well integrated in the elementary classroom.

    In a study of how often and how effectively vocabulary instruction occurred in

    elementary classrooms in Canada (Scott et al. 2003), researchers found only 1.4% of

    school time was devoted to vocabulary development within academic subjects of

    mathematics, science, art, and social studies, and most of this time was devoted to

    mentioning and assigning rather than teaching. Effective use and instruction of

    science vocabulary can impact students success in many school subjects.

    Beck et al. (2002) identify a relationship between school achievement and

    vocabulary knowledge, and vocabulary in content areas such as science and social

    studies pose unique problems for learners (Wellington and Osborne 2001). One

    main goal of national science reform efforts is making science relevant for all

    students, including students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds

    (AAAS 1989; TESOL 2006). This is of particular concern for students who depend

    on schools to become more proficient in academic English (Scott et al. 2003;

    Spycher 2009). Many strategies that support English language learning, such as

    providing students with experiences using science vocabulary words and phrases

    and relating them to other concepts, apply to science learning for all. On the other

    hand, learning for all students is hindered when teachers introduce a word and its

    definition at the beginning of a lesson as the sole vocabulary instruction strategy.

    Further, while science content and process knowledge is a goal for science

    instruction, language use is interwoven with learning science. Wellington and

    Osborne (2001) emphasize that learning language is a major part of science

    education and a major barrier for most students, yet a focus on learning language is

    not always a priority in elementary science classrooms (Spycher 2009).

    The present study examined elementary preservice teachers knowledge and

    application of science vocabulary during novice instruction episodes. The purpose

    of this study was to: (1) examine preservice teachers knowledge of elementary

    science vocabulary at the beginning and end of a science methods course, and (2)

    document preservice teachers use of elementary science vocabulary commonly

    used in elementary science instruction during initial science teaching experiences.

    Literature Review

    As teacher educators it is important that we not only help preservice teachers learn

    science vocabulary but we help them develop communication skills through

    speaking, writing, and reasoning using scientific language. The job of science

    educators according to Lemke (1990) is to help students learn how to use the

    language of science for their own purposes (p. 100). Lemke identifies the

    language of science as not limited to vocabulary and grammar but with thematicpatterns to develop a system for communicating meanings. Science vocabulary isdeeply tied to the larger discourse in the science classroom. This classroom

    discourse includes interactions between students and teachers as well as students

    with peers using a variety of semiotic modes: visual, action, along with

    406 S. J. Carrier


  • representations using words, graphs, equations, tables and charts (Lemke 2003;

    Tippett 2009), and preservice teacher preparation in science includes developing

    communication skills in multiple modes.

    Elementary preservice teachers well-documented avoidance of science (Schoon

    and Boone 1998; Tilgner 1990) indicates that they need multiple opportunities to

    discuss and develop science content knowledge and communication skills (Harlen

    1997). An examination of traditional patterns of teachers discursive practices (Glen

    and Dotger 2009; Wilson 1999) encourages an exploration of preservice teachers

    science vocabulary knowledge as they learn to apply the language of science.

    Science Vocabulary

    Science vocabulary can be categorized in various ways and these intricacies pose

    challenges in science instruction. Conceptual words (e.g. work, energy) often have

    different meanings in science than in everyday language (Harmon et al. 2005;

    Wellington and Osborne 2001). Some terms are visible and more concrete, while

    others rely on abstract imagery (e.g. electron). In the seminal report Taking Scienceto School (NRC 2007), Vygotskys work is cited to support the idea that sciencelearning is a process of moving from the linguistically abstract to the concrete, not

    vice versa (p. 59). Science language possesses various features that include content

    specific meanings (e.g. isotope, atom) and functional terms (e.g. interpreting data,

    drawing conclusions). Wellington and Osborne (2001) present an increasingly

    complex taxonomy of words of science that includes naming words, process words,

    concept words, and mathematical words and symbols: All contribute to science

    understanding. Understanding science vocabulary requires developing relationships

    between the terms and meanings (Lee et al. 1995), yet science terms and definitions

    have a long history of isolated instruction.

    Developing science vocabulary knowledge provides additional obstacles because

    there are many terms to both read and understand. Yagers (1983) review of research

    concluded that more vocabulary terms are introduced in science classrooms than foreign

    language classrooms. Science textbooks have a lengthy history of high readability levels

    (Chavkin 2002; Chiang-Soong and Yager 1993; Mallinson et al. 1950; OToole and

    Bedford 1969), and the difficulty and numbers of specific science vocabulary terms have

    been identified as reasons for poor comprehension of science text. Yet, instructional time

    for vocabulary development is often limited, and many teachers neglect to include

    strategy instruction to help students make sense of content area text (Glen and Dotger

    2009; Kragler et al. 2005; Scott et al. 2003).

    Strategies for effective vocabulary instruction include selecting words that build on

    students prior knowledge and allow students to explore words and their meanings. Some

    strategies include types of graphic organizers, predicting meanings of words and

    interacting with word parts such as prefixes, suffixes, roots, and origins of words.

    Classifying words can include grouping by word categories to develop deep

    understandings through word relationships. Building a word rich environment provides

    opportunities for students to become immersed in words and supports implicit and

    explicit instruction for content vocabulary (Harlen 1997; Phillips et al. 2008; Lee et al.


    Elementary Preservice Teachers Science Vocabulary 407


  • While most students come to school adept at learning and using language,

    students cultural differences and histories can impact teachers perceptions of

    students communication abilities. These forms of communication include produc-

    tive discussions, reasoning, analysis, and descriptions of observations. As Michaels

    et al. (2008) point out, There are no native speakers of science (p. 97), and

    therefore teachers must learn how to provide equitable access to discourse in the