Introducing scientific language

Students must learn new specific terminology if they are to develop their understanding of scientific concepts.

Beck, McKeown and Kucan (2013) categorise vocabulary into three tiers:

  • Tier 1: everyday words (e.g. word, number)
  • Tier 2: words that are useful across multiple subject areas (e.g. analysis, argument)
  • Tier 3: subject-specific words or technical terminology (e.g. electromagnetism, photovoltaic).

Within Science, explicitly teaching Tier 2 and 3 words will allow students to access and communicate scientific content knowledge.

Leno and Dougherty (2007) argue that methods of teaching vocabulary that focus on students copying definitions from a textbook are problematic for three reasons:

  1. definitions in isolation can be too broad or too narrow, having no direct link to the topic being taught
  2. students may copy definitions absentmindedly, rather than reading and understanding the definition
  3. identifying definitions within a passage of text may lead to incomplete or incorrect definitions.

Introducing new vocabulary in contextually rich and cognitively demanding ways benefits all students, whether students identify as English-speaking, English as an additional language (EAL), or as having a disability or additional needs.

Four strategies that teachers can use to introduce new vocabulary to students are:

Teaching base words and word parts (morphemes)

Morphemes are the smallest units of meaning represented in written and spoken language. There are different types of morphemes, including bases and affixes (prefixes and suffixes). Words, for example, can be deconstructed into more than one morpheme as in the word electric consisting of two morphemes: [electr] + [-ic]. New words can also be created by attaching additional morphemes. For example, adding the noun forming suffix [-ity] to the adjective [electric], creates the noun, electricity.

Rather than memorising words, students can learn about morphemes as a way to look ‘inside’ unfamiliar technical terms to find meaningful parts.

Understanding how scientific terminology is structured using common Greek and Latin morphemes, and how morphemes connect words in meaningful ways, offers students portable knowledge about form-function-meaning relationships in words to support vocabulary development with potential flow-on benefits to writing and reading comprehension (Herrington & Macken-Horarik, 2015; Nunes & Bryant, 2006).

Literacy in Practice Video: Biology - Morphemes

In this video, Catherine Walkear introduces students to morphemes. In the video, Catherine uses the parts card strategy in a Year 7 science class learning about taxonomy. She also uses morphological matrices in a Year 8 Biology class learning about diseases and disorders.

Teacher prompts

  • What do you think the value is in teaching students about morphemes in Science?
  • How might you introduce your students to morphemes in Science

Student prompts

  • Do you think knowing more about morphemes would help you better learn new vocabulary in Science?

Read the in-depth notes for this video.

Parts card strategy for introducing vocabulary

Stants’s (2013) parts card strategy is one way for teachers to introduce students to new vocabulary. The parts card strategy requires students to dissect new vocabulary, generate meaning, and then draw a diagram to demonstrate their understanding. Zoski et al. (2018) have modified Stants’s parts card strategy to emphasise the language modes. 

See an example of a parts card work sample for Year 7 or Year 8 (VCSSU092, VCSSU095)

Morphological matrix

Bowers and Cooke’s (2012) morphological matrix is another tool teachers and students can use to develop new vocabulary. Morphological matrices list the various prefixes and suffixes that can be combined to base words to generate new words. The two worked examples below show how the matrix can be used from Year 7 to Year 10, depending on the vocabulary and context.


hyper + tonic = hypotonic

iso + tonic = isotonic

hypo + tonic = hypotonic

Curriculum links for the above example: VCSSU095, VCSSU117


endo + therm + al = endothermal

endo + therm + ic = endothermic

therm + al = thermal

exo + therm + al = exothermal

exo + therm + ic = exothermic

geo + therm + al = geothermal

geo + therm + ic = geothermic

hydro + therm + al = hydrothermal

hydro + therm + ic = hydrothermic

meso + therm + ic = mesothermic

meso + therm + al = mesothermal

iso + therm + al = isothermal

iso + therm + ic = isothermic

Curriculum links for the above example: VCSSU091, VCSSU100, VCSSU098, VCSSU117, VCSSU126, VCSSU127

Joint construction of definitions

Joint construction is a collaborative process that involves the teacher and students working together to construct understanding. It is a reciprocal process in which the students’ responses and behaviours influence the teacher’s responses and behaviours, and vice versa (van Vondel et al., 2017).

Joint construction can be used to develop students’ understanding of new scientific terminology and definitions as outlined below:

  1. The teacher introduces a technical term within context, for example, read a definition from a textbook, watching an informative video
  2. Students talk out the term with a partner
  3. Individually or in pairs, students write a definition for the term in their own words
  4. The teacher asks students to share their definitions, writing one of them on the board
  5. Through dialogue, the teacher and students refine the definition on the board
  6. Students compare and correct their own definitions in relation to the jointly constructed definition.

For example, students in Year 8 (VCSSU090, VCSSU094) could:

  1. watch an informative video on stenting (e.g. “Coronary angioplasty, balloons and stents”)
  2. talk out what stenting means
  3. draw and write a definition.
Student definition: "Stenting is when a stent (tube) is placed in an artery to unblock it."

Naming processes (nominalisation)

Nominalisation is the process of forming nouns from other word groups. Nominalisation is one of the most distinctive linguistic features of scientific writing (Banks, 2008; Halliday, 2004). This is because scientific texts are often highly condensed and frequently contain abstract ideas and concepts.

In Science, verbs are often nominalised to create the names of processes. This can be done by:

  • creating a gerund (by adding the [-ing] suffix). For example, weather can be nominalised to weathering (e.g. chemical weathering)
  • adding noun forming suffixes such as [-al], [-ce], [-ion] and [-ment]. For example, when [-ion] is added to the end of the verb, stagnate, the nominalised form is produced: stagnation
  • Adding a noun forming prefix such as [ante-], [fore-], [macro-], [maxi-], [micro-], [mid-], [mini-], [pre-] and [post-]. For example, when [sur-] meaning ‘extra’ is attached to the front of the verb charge, the noun surcharge is formed.

Similarly, adjectives can be nominalised by adding noun suffixes. For example, noun density is formed by adding the morpheme [-ity] to the adjective, dense.

Educating students about regular noun forming suffixes (morphemes) is one way to introduce students to nominalisation. The tables below show how verbs and adjectives are nominalised in Science using a selection of regular noun suffixes.

VerbNoun forming suffixNoun


AdjectiveNoun forming suffixNoun

An unintended consequence of using nominalisation is the introduction of abstraction (Halliday, 2004). Explicitly teaching the word parts of nominalised terms helps students to identify embedded meaning.

Knowing how to construct and deconstruct nominalised terms also helps students to better interpret and create texts, and to write in a more sophisticated and scientific manner.

One way to teach Year 9 and 10 students to use nominalisation in their writing is outlined below, along with an example of what a student’s work may look like. The example supports the teaching of the following curriculum links: VCSSU124, VCSSU125, VCSIS140

StepStudent example
1. Student writes a conclusion for an experiment The chemicals reacted and bubbles formed.
2. Student highlights verbs in their writingThe chemicals reacted and bubbles formed.
3. Student converts the verbs to nounsreacted becomes reaction
formed becomes formation
4. Student rewrites the conclusion using the newly created nouns (nominalised verbs)The chemical reaction resulted in the formation of bubbles.

When reading, reversing the strategy above can help students to unpack the meaning of dense nouns, particularly those relating to scientific or experimental processes. Compound nouns ([noun + noun] or [adjective + noun]) may also be underlined. Again, the example supports the teaching of the following curriculum links: VCSSU124, VCSSU125, VCSIS140

StepStudent example
1. Student reads a passage from a textA combustion reaction is an example of an exothermic reaction. Combustion occurs when a substance reacts with oxygen gas to produce heat, usually in the form of an explosion or burning. Combustion reactions are also a type of oxidation reaction because oxygen is a reactant.
2. Student highlights nouns in the passage, looking for noun-forming suffixes or compound nounsA combustion reaction is an example of an exothermic reaction. Combustion occurs when a substance reacts with oxygen gas to produce heat, usually in the form of an explosion or burning. Combustion reactions are also a type of oxidation reaction because oxygen is a reactant
3. Student converts the selected nouns to verbs“combustion" becomes “to combust”
“combustion reaction” becomes “to react and combust”
“exothermic reaction” becomes “react and produce heat”
“explosion” becomes “to explode”
“burning” becomes “to burn”
“oxidation reaction” becomes “to react with oxygen.”
4.  Student writes or orates a definition for the nounCombustion is a chemical reaction with oxygen that results in an explosion or burning.

Everyday vs scientific words (register)

Scientists speak and write differently depending on the audience, the context and the purpose. The different styles or formalities of speaking and writing are known as ‘register’ and can be placed along a continuum. The register continuum below emphasises the links between scientific communication and the F–10 Victorian Curriculum: English sub-strands.

register continuum

In Science, students need to be explicitly taught how to write and speak in more formal registers. Teacher modelling (HITS Strategy 3) and ongoing feedback (HITS Strategy 8) will support students to develop their understanding and use of register within the Science classroom. The example below for a Year 7 or 8 lesson has been modified from Polias (2016, pp. 85-88) and addresses VCSSU095 and VCSIS113.

  1. The students are asked to design an experiment to show how impurities affect the melting and/or boiling points of a substance.
  2. The teacher revises the scientific content and knowledge students require, introducing and explaining technical terms, making explicit links between concrete verbs and more abstract nouns (e.g. melting/liquify and liquefaction; boiling/evaporate and evaporation).
  3. The teacher writes the words on the board, organised in a table like the one below.
    Everyday wordEveryday word and scientific wordScientific word
    turns to water
  4. Students work in small groups to design the experiment.
  5. The teacher moves around the groups, questioning and assisting students to use more technical terms in their small group discussions.
    • So when you say ___, that means ___.
    • Do you remember the technical term we use?
  6. Each group presents their experiment to the class.
  7. Again, the teacher questions and assists the students to use more formal and technical language. The teacher may also model or scaffold how to do this.
    • How would the textbook describe that process?
    • That’s an everyday term; can you remember the scientific name for it?

Classroom discussions and questioning

Questioning (HITS Strategy 7) provides students with opportunities to talk about, argue and express opinions and differing points of view (DET, 2017). Effective questioning is fundamental to fostering productive discussion (or classroom talk) (Fisher, Frey and Hattie, 2016). During conversations, teachers can ask a number of questions to promote deeper thinking and to increase the level of rigour of classroom talk.

The following two strategies have been adapted from Accountable Talk® Sourcebook (Michaels et al., 2010) for the Science classroom. Teachers can find other strategies to promote effective discussions in the online resource.


  1. A research question or hypothesis is shared with the whole class (either teacher- or student-generated).
  2. A small, focal group of students (the “fish”) are selected to discuss and determine a methodology for the given investigation. The focal group should:
    • select appropriate equipment
    • identify controlled and independent variables
    • propose an appropriate procedure
    • explain how data will be recorded.
  3. The focal group is positioned so that the rest of the class (the “researchers”) can observe their conversation. The researchers are critical observers, assessing the talk of the focal group.
  4. At different points during the conversation, the teacher interrupts the focal group and asks the researchers to discuss the focal students’ talk, process, or reasoning.
  5. The teacher should not intervene or comment on each student’s contribution
  6. At strategic moments, the teacher refocuses the observers and guides the group discussion to determine a final methodology for the investigation.
  7. The investigation is conducted by the entire class in the following lesson.

Curriculum links for the above example: VCSIS108, VCSIS109, VCSIS135

Pressing for accuracy and evidence

The questions below can support students to develop their understanding of the use and importance of evidence in scientific conversations. Teachers can ask these questions during class discussions, with small groups, or individually with a student.

  • Where can we find that in the textbook?
  • What did you observe to make you think/say that?
  • What evidence do you have to support what you have just said?
  • How could we check what you have just said?
  • Is there more data to support that inference?
  • How could we collect more data to support your claim?

When necessary, teachers can model to students how to use evidence to answer such questions.


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  • Beck, I.L., McKeown, M.G., & Kucan, L. (2013). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. Guilford Press.
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  • Zoski, J.L., Nellenbach, K.M., & Erickson, K.A. (2018). Using morphological strategies to help adolescents decode, spell, and comprehend big words in science. Communication Disorders Quarterly, 40(1), 57–64.