Introducing Science Vocabulary: An Interactive Approach

The Problem

Students copy definitions from the overhead.  Yeah, that was my class.  They were quiet… but only because they were falling asleep.

About a year ago, I was sitting around thinking about science vocabulary.  (What else would I possibly think about?)  I felt like I was a strong teacher when it came to reviewing science vocabulary, but my introduction was missing something.  A lot of my struggling learners needed something more concrete, something they could get their hands on.

Last year, I taught my 5th grade students about properties of matter as our first big unit.  I remember how my struggling learners were still getting some of the parts confused.  Really confused.  We had done labs.  We had drawn pictures.  We had motions.  We had games.  But they needed something else.

In a small group, we did hands-on examples of the vocabulary terms.  Relative density, physical states, physical properties, mass, volume, all of those concepts that were so far above their heads were now in reach.  Quiz scores went up that week for those students.  They felt better; I felt better.  I vowed to do this at the beginning of units instead of waiting until it was time to re-teach.  Hands-On Science Vocabulary Instruction was born.

This was a very informal process for my class last year.  Over the summer, however, I worked to make a complete eBook with ideas, photos, and printables to introduce new science terms.

Why does this work?

  • Students with little science background knowledge get a foundation on which to base the new terms.
  • Students use Interactive Science Notebooks and complete Output for each activity to reflect on new learning.
  • The activities are quick, engaging, and to the point.
  • Direct instruction is collaborative and interactive.
  • After direct instruction, students APPLY their new learning to the activity they just did.
  • How can you understand the terms regarding solutions (solute, solvent, dissolve, mixture) if you don’t really know what a solution is?
How does it work?
There are four parts to a lesson:
  1. Activity Time: Complete a brief activity (10 minutes or so).  Students draw a picture of it in their notebooks.
  2. Direct Instruction: Teach students new terms using motions, partner talk, and writing in notebooks.
  3. Application: Students go back to their drawings from the activity and label and describe parts of their drawings using their new vocabulary.
  4. Student Output: Students complete and I Learned page in their notebooks.  
What does it look like?
Let’s keep with the mixtures and solutions example from earlier.
Step 1- Activity
Give students a bottle filled halfway with water.  (I add food coloring because it’s more awesome.)  The students pour in sand and salt.  Put the top on and shake, shake, shake.  They put it down, let it settle, and drawing their observations.  
Step 2- Direct Instruction
Use motions and call and response (from Whole Brain Teaching) to teach new terms.  Students write definitions in their foldable or on the next notebook page.
Step 3- Application
Students go back to the page with the drawing and add labels and information using their new terms.  The part that was added is shown in the above photo on Post-its.  (Students don’t need to use Post-its, necessarily, but it helps to show y’all what I mean.)
Step 4- Output
During Output, students show what they learned in any way they choose.  I have more information on my blog about Output.
Want to learn more?
Find my eBook at The Science Penguin on TpT.  


  1. Science Penguin, you are brilliant! I teach sixth grade (fifth grade last year) and the way you described all the ways that you taught them, and still many of them still didn’t understand was what I have experienced as well. Thanks so much for sharing your methodology. It is greatly appreciated!
    Take care,
    Carol of The Teacher Team

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