Biology is a particularly tough subject for freshman high school students. Part of the difficulty is the massive amount of difficult, new vocabulary students must learn. Each unit comes with 15-20 new words that students must learn. For instance, in my classes right now, we are covering “The Chemistry of Biology” in Unit 2. Students must learn 17 words related to this unit, including: polarity, enzyme, carbohydrate, and polymer. Although this is challenging, the advantage for incoming students who are new to biology is that everyone is on the same playing field. No one knows the language of biology so everyone has to start from scratch. That may be particularly helpful for English language learners, who are accustomed to their peers understanding the vocabulary better than they do. The emphasis on vocabulary for biology students is imperative, particularly in teaching science literacy. Keeping that in mind, vocabulary should always be taught in context so that students better understand what their reading and so they can put their thoughts into words more eloquently.
After taking the “Reading Strategies Inventory” in the article, “From practice to preaching: helping content area teachers teach comprehension” (Bennett, 2003), I was surprised my score wasn’t higher. My means were: 3.8 for global reading strategies, 4.8 for problem solving strategies, and 3.9 for support reading strategies (out of 5). Upon reflection, I believe this is because I have never really thought about how I read. I began reading fluently at a very young age. I don’t remember how I learned to read. My mother says I just came in and started reading one day. I was always placed in the advanced reading groups in elementary school and was exempt from many of the basic college English and literature classes required for graduation because of my high test scores on vocabulary, reading comprehension, and writing skills. I’ve always been a reader, learning much from the readings I was assigned and reading for pleasure in my free time. Even though my personal history indicates I have adept reading strategy skills, I’ve never applied metacognition to how I developed these skills. This exercise will help make me a better teacher because I am becoming more aware of how students learn to read and what strategies I can teach them to improve their reading comprehension.
After observing 4 teachers and conducting a short, follow-up interview on their strategies for teaching content vocabulary, I organized their collective information into a list, which can be seen below:
“How do you select the words for your students to learn?”
· Most teachers said that they use the bolded words in the textbook accompanying the unit to teach their students. Sometimes, these words are selected by the department.
“How do you teach the vocabulary to your students?”
· Word wall
· Graphic Organizers & Word Maps
o Such as “4-Square”
o Must include: word, definition (in your own words), example, picture.
· Students create sentences to use each word in context
· One of the tips I heard repeatedly was, “Relate the words to their interests and backgrounds”. Students remember words better when they link it to a visual image of something they already know. For instance, when learning “polarity”, students think of polar bears, which live in the north pole. The Earth’s poles have polarity due to magnetic fields (a positive and negative side). The polarity of a molecule is the same thing (different ends due to a positive side and a negative side).
· Write an essay related to the unit. Must include 5-7 vocab words.
· 7-Degrees of Separation:
o An exercise where students take two very different vocabulary words from the unit and must link them together with other vocab words. They can use any words they want from the vocabulary but they must justify the connection. For instance, in psychology, you might use this exercise to link “acetylcholine” and “humanities”. Students have to connect those two very distinct words with other vocab words. The end result might be something like: acetylcholine-neurotransmitter-brain-neurobiology-perspective-humanities. Students then have to justify why they used their words to make the connection. There are no right or wrong answers.
“How do you check to make sure they are learning these words?”
· Quizzes and tests
· Check notebooks weekly. Complete vocab with definitions part of full credit.
· Homework or assignments, such as complete and correct flashcards and worksheets—turn in and give credit.
· Oral assessments—test class by giving definition. They have to come up with word. Or, give the class the word and ask them for the definition.
o This could be turned into a game in teams for points (extra credit).
· Jeopardy vocab
“How do you use the vocabulary they’ve learned to improve their reading comprehension?”
· Give extra credit for students who use the words correctly in a sentence (written or oral).
· Include vocabulary in readings so students can see the words in context.
· Preview before they start reading (skim, look at pictures, tables, graphs, read the bolded headings to get an idea of what they are about to read).
· Try to come up with a definition from reading it in context and using root words, suffixes and prefixes.
o This could even be turned into a game where each team has to come up with their “best guess” of the definition of the word. The team that comes closest wins the round and gets a point. The team with the most points gets extra credit (or a raffle ticket or some sort of small prize or reward)
Bennett, M. B. (2003). From practice to preaching: helping content area teachers teach comprehension. Voices from the Middle, 11(1), 31-34.