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Students entering a sixth-grade science classroom are excited to learn about the world around them. Students love science experiments, which gain their attention, but are lost when the focus turns toward explaining the scientific phenomenon. Technical and academic words impede their learning. How can their science teacher help sixth grade scientists fully understand the content?

Many students who are proficient in early reading can begin to struggle later with reading, especially in the area of content reading (Allington. 2002). As students progress through school, the demands of reading shift. The vocabulary encountered is more specialized and technical (Chall, 1983; Allington, 2002). "'Limited understanding of content-area vocabulary can lead to misconceptions and gaps in students' learning" (Rasinski, Padak, & Newton, 2017, p. 42).

Incorporating reading strategies such as vocabulary instruction in content areas is not a new concept. "For many years, practitioners have heard pronouncements to the effect that all teachers are teachers of reading; that is, it is not good enough to have content specialists..." (Greenwood, 2010. p. 223). Yet teachers often turn their attention to factual knowledge and spend little time on other issues in reading (U.S. Department of Education, 2010). This instructional practice is taking place while seven decades worth of research indicated that vocabulary knowledge is strongly related with reading comprehension (Rasinski et al., 2017).

Even though much is known about vocabulary instruction, teachers find difficulty putting best practice in place (Bromley, 2007; Flanigan and Greenwood, 2007; Greenwood, 2010). "According to vocabulary scholar Margaret McKeown, very little vocabulary instruction happens in many U.S. classrooms" (Banchero, 2013; Rasinski et al. 2017, p. 41). Research has yet to indicate what professional development is needed for teachers to become proficient in vocabulary instruction. The need is to determine what instructional techniques will help adolescents learn the contextual meanings of vocabulary (National Institute for Literacy, 2007).

With the adoption of Common Core State Standards (CCSS) (2010), higher-order thinking skills are essential not only for English language arts but also for social studies and science. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) (2013) reemphasized higher-order thinking with the inclusion of crosscutting concepts. "Content-area words represent concepts that are integral to a field of study, yet mastering such vocabulary can be challenging for students because it involves learning new words for new ideas" (Rasinski et al., 2017, p. 42). Rasinski reported that developing vocabulary instructional strategies enhances the effectiveness of content-area teachers. This study explored development in content-area vocabulary instruction. Three questions were examined: (1) What science vocabulary instructional strategies are most effective? (2) How can reflective teaching combat common misconceptions in adolescents' science knowledge? (3) How can reflective teaching impact students' metacognition in scientific vocabulary understanding?

Instructional Strategies

Explicit vocabulary instruction is essential for students' academic achievement especially in classrooms where struggling readers have limited word knowledge (Beach, Sanchez, Flynn, & O'Connor, 2015). Research findings suggested that there is not one best way for teaching vocabulary; rather the use of multiple strategies including repeated exposure is best for student retention (Medo and Ryder, 1993; Bryant et al., 2003; National Institute for Literacy, 2007). Variating instructional strategies can help meet the needs of all learners in the classroom. However, mastering the use of vocabulary strategies is also important. Content-area teachers can gradually build in vocabulary strategies to ensure effective use as the students transfer the strategies to their independent reading (Greenwood, 2010).

Teachers need to carefully select words for explicit vocabulary instruction (Beach et al., 2015). "By thoughtfully selecting words to emphasize, teachers can design instruction to help young adolescents comprehend content-area texts and develop connections between background knowledge and new concepts" (Smith and Angotti, 2012. p. 43). It is essential for these words to be taught directly and practiced before students can understand a text independently (2015).

Reflective Teaching and Promoting Student Metacognition

In How We Think, Dewey (1910; 1997) defined reflective thought as "an active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in light of the grounds that support it, and the further conclusions to which it tends" (p. 6). Reflection is significant to the nature of practice. Improvement can only be fostered by the professional's understanding of the concept of self and the nature of the practical (Calderhead, 1987; Kayapinar, 2016). "Teachers have long been reflecting on their practices while searching for methods to become more effective educators" (Laverick, 2017).

Flavell (1976) described metacognition as "one's knowledge concerning one's own cognitive processes or anything related to them" (Hammond & Nessel, 2011, p. 26). "The knowledge of students' own thinking allows for greater efficiency, flexibility, and transferability of their knowledge to new situations which develops a greater ability to adapt to diverse tasks and ultimately lead to better learning" (Pintrich, 2002; Sarver, 2006; Conrady, 2015, p. 134). However, students are not naturally autonomous when it comes to metacognition. Students develop this skill through explicit instruction in which the teacher assists the students to access their own thinking (2002; 2006; 2015).

The teacher-researcher reflected on instructional practice and used students' topical knowledge in the natural setting of the classroom through case studies. Using the case study format allowed the researcher to develop an in-depth analysis of a case involving one or more individuals (Creswell, 2014). Piaget's (1953; 1973) theory of cognitive dis-equilibration, where individuals take in new information and adjust to the new information by revamping their existing thoughts, served as the study's theoretical framework (Hammond & Nessel, 2011).


Participants and Setting

The study's participants attended a public school in the upper Midwest. The school served approximately 624 fifth and sixth-grade students. The sixth-grade class consisted of 21 students. The research began at the end of the first quarter, thus purposeful sampling was used to select a participant from each category: above, at and below grade level. The STAR reading assessment determined the students' levels. Consent for data collection, including student written responses and interviews, was obtained from the guardians of each participant as well as verbal consent from each participant.

The sample included one eleven and two twelve-year-old participants. Research was conducted during science class. Students worked independently or in groups of two to four students depending on the activity. Interviews were conducted individually if clarification was needed for written responses. Participants and non-participants received similar instruction. Data collection was completed with all students.

The research was conducted during regular science class times as part of the classroom culture and established environment. Students sat in teacher-directed seating assignments where desks were arranged according to the needs of the lesson's objective.

Science class occurred daily from 1:15-2:10. A variety of instructional methods were used by the teacher-researcher, including direct-teacher instruction, group-based activities, and experiments. Student practice of the material included independent and group work. Students were encouraged to think, listen and discuss questions posed by the teacher-researcher and students.

Data Collection

Over an eight week period, the teacher-researcher collected pre and post vocabulary assessments, exit cards and conducted student interviews when clarification on written material was needed. A teacher-reflective journal was utilized. The teacher-researcher examined data for patterns of vocabulary instructional strategy effectiveness and student growth. At the beginning of each chapter, students were asked to describe prior knowledge of certain vocabulary terms that would be introduced during the chapter. Students also completed questions about the chapter's essential vocabulary and concepts on exit cards throughout the chapter. The exit cards were completed each week or after crucial concepts were taught. The teacher-researcher kept a written journal reflecting on instructional practice and student progression. The teacher-researcher used the exit cards and the reflective journal data to guide future instruction. At the end of the chapter, students completed a post-assessment, recalling knowledge on learned vocabulary. The teacher-researcher interviewed students if any written responses needed clarification.

The pre-assessments gave the teacher-researcher a baseline regarding what prior knowledge the students had from other sources. The teacher-researcher recorded the data and used the information, in part, as a pacing guide. The post-assessment displayed the students' knowledge after instruction. The post-assessment was compared to the pre-assessment. The recorded data demonstrated student knowledge of the science vocabulary content in each chapter.

The students' exit cards and teacher's journal were completed throughout the study for analysis. The researcher looked for indicators of the effectiveness of vocabulary instructional strategies used as well as needed teaching points for upcoming lessons. Student growth was also recorded and analyzed over the course of the chapter.

A constant comparative method was used, with the researcher collecting, analyzing and reflecting on the data throughout the study. Data sources were triangulated. Data collected from participants' pre and post assessments, exit cards and the teacher-researcher's reflective journal allowed for the exploration of patterns and themes associated with the study's research questions.


The following sections describe the themes found after analysis of the data. Three themes were identified: the importance of written and visual representation of vocabulary; the importance of repetition and review; and the importance of manipulation.

The Importance of Written and Visual Representation of Vocabulary

Science notebooks housed a variety of student-produced material that which the student could refer back to in the course of their learning. "Teachers need to consider what elements of a science notebook are most appropriate to meet their learning goals in science" (Ogle, et al., 2016, p. 121). During this study, a number of written vocabulary instructional strategies were used and the products were archived in the students' science notebooks.

Four-square model. A four square model is a modified version of the Frayer Model. For example, the students in this study constructed a chart displaying the name of a type of rock, the definition and characteristics of the rock type, and a colored drawing and labeling of a specific example from that rock type. Class discussion occurred while completing four square activities. At times, short videos and/or demonstrations were used in conjunction with the creation of charts to give students context. Once the charts were complete, the students glued it into their science notebooks and were used as a reference for future activities.

The teacher-researcher noticed the students more readily used the four-square model than the traditional bulleted notes as a resource when completing assignments. After creating and using the four square model, students completed exit cards displaying knowledge of the different types of rocks. Each participant's responses focused mainly on the creation processes when explaining each rock type. Owen's responses were more detailed by not only writing about the processes but also mentioning characteristics of the rock types. Emma's responses were concise and only involving the processes of creating the types of rock. Jaidence still had some confusion differentiating the rock types. For example, her response to what is sedimentary rock was: "Sedimentary rock is pieces of sediment that is having the sediment being heated up and then have pressure added to it." Heat and pressure forms metamorphic rock although compaction, a type of pressure, plays a role in forming sedimentary rock. The teacher-researcher revamped the trajectory of the unit to give more practice on the creation of the rock types.

Diagrams. Diagrams give a visual to connect with a topic. Students in this study created a rock cycle diagram after reading about it in a text. The text and rock cycle diagram were glued in the science notebook. The diagram acted as a guide the next day as the students reenacted the rock cycle in the Starburst Rock Cycle lab.

This activity was done toward the end of the rock cycle unit. The teacher-researcher observed confidence as the students filled in the diagram. The participants' post assessments displayed growth in terms of detailed descriptions of the characteristics of the rock types along with the creation processes. For example, Emma described igneous rock as "formed by cooling and hardening. It has tiny holes and a glass-like surface." As the students completed their post assessments, the teacher-researcher observed that the participants spent more time writing rather than thinking compared to their performances during the pre-assessment and even when completing the exit cards. The words to express their knowledge were readily available to extract and put forth in their writing.

Word sorts. Word sorts gave students the opportunity to challenge their understanding of vocabulary words along with utilizing science notebooks as a reference to reiterate concepts covered. This activity revealed any misconceptions students had about a word or concept. The teacher was able to give immediate feedback to the students allowing for time to confer with students about their misconceptions.

Participants of the study performed well on this activity. The teacher-researcher was able to assess whether the students were able to recall the information from memory or access it from their science notebook. The speed at which the students completed the assignment was also noted. These qualities showed how comfortable the students were with the material so far. Owen and Jaidence had all the concepts correct on the word sort. Owen's rate of completion was quite rapid, indicating he was comfortable with the material. Jaidence rate was good, completing her word sort in a median time frame compared to others in the class. Emma had one concept in the wrong category. We discussed the misconception regarding what a conglomerate rock was and how sedimentary rocks were made up of sediment which can come from any rock type.

The Importance of Repetition and Review

"We know that a word must be experienced repeatedly in different context to be learned" (Ogle, et al., 2016, p. 107). Multiple exposure in varied ways including opportunities to read, write, and talk were used in this study. A vocabulary word was repeated both in a specific introductory lesson and then in lessons throughout the unit. An overall unit review involving looking up information in science notebooks, completing written responses, and review games proceeded the unit assessment.

Using a variety of vocabulary games is a way to vary word exposure with student engagement. Games using the element of talk gives students an opportunity to solidify information. Students need to verbally explain science concepts in order to learn it and well as refine their understanding (Ogle, et al., 2016, p. 104). In this study, the teacher-researcher observed engaged students who demonstrated high levels of understanding during a game fashioned after the game show, $100,000 Pyramid, which centers around verbally explaining a word to a partner and. in turn, this partner had to guess the vocabulary word that was being explained.

Opportunities to produce written responses gave students an additional way to process the information. Students need opportunities to write about scientific ideas (Grant & Fisher, 2010; Murray, 2004; Ogle, et al., 2016). Students were given different platforms to produce writing. Students wrote explanations to various questions posed in a trivia-styled game. Student were given immediate feedback on responses. Again, the students enjoyed the game aspect along with displaying high levels of understanding. Another way students demonstrated their understanding was through creating concept circles. Students wrote clues to a vocabulary word in each section of a divided circle. Each student created eight concept circles which were written for a different vocabulary word. Then the students exchanged concept circles and attempted to figure out the clues of each circle. The teacher-researcher noted the specificity of the clues showed higher levels of understanding.

The Importance of Manipulation

Hands-on experiences provide a context to scientific concepts. "The linking of manipulation with the use of the language is important in such learning experiences" (Ogle, et al., 2016. p. 109). During this study, students studied concepts involving weathering, erosion, and deposition and the rock cycle. Demonstrations, such as shaking sugar cubes in a container versus placing chalk in a glass filled with vinegar, allowed students to experience the differences between vocabulary words like mechanical and chemical weathering first hand. Student engagement was high during lessons involving class demonstrations and experiments. Student questions fueled class discussions. Lessons involving manipulation built the foundation for student learning.

The participants' pre-assessments showed their lack of knowledge as well as the vocabulary needed to discuss the phenomenons in the curriculum. Demonstrating differences through the hands-on activities showed the reason different terms were needed. This was evident with chemical and mechanical weathering. In the pre-assessments, participants left the chemical and mechanical weathering boxes blank or wrote incorrect descriptions of these vocabulary terms. The chemical and mechanical demonstrations showed how the rock was broken down. The how is the difference between the two different types of weathering. This demonstration along with other methods such as concept mapping and discussion was used by the teacher-researcher to construct understanding.


Context area teachers have traditionally focused on factual knowledge and given less emphasis toward vocabulary instruction. Previous research indicates direct vocabulary instruction is beneficial to all students, especially struggling readers (Beach, Sanchez, Flynn, & O'Connor, 2015). The results of this study suggests that vocabulary instruction should be delivered in a variety of ways. Supplying multiple exposure to vocabulary words, or repetition and review, in varied formats increased the participants' comfort levels in regard to using the vocabulary words correctly within a discussion over said topic. Students need opportunities to write, read, talk, listen, and perform hands-on tasks, demonstrating the importance of manipulation. One type of experience is not more important than another, all work together to create a web of understanding. Moreover, teachers need to be cognizant that varied opportunities exist in the curriculum. It is possible that varied activities retain student engagement. Participants were eager to try new vocabulary games and conduct new types of experiments, using a variety of written and visual representation techniques. This, in turn, appeared to make them more eager to discuss or write about the results. Student feedback was a key element in this study. By having a pulse on the current misconceptions of the class, the teacher was able to address the misconception with additional activities to smooth out gaps in understanding. In light of these outcomes, vocabulary instruction is very customized; however, it should follow some basic guiding principles.

Although this study highlighted basic guiding principles to follow when constructing a vocabulary regime in the classroom, it has limitations. The sample size of participants was too small to extrapolate the outcome. Thus, it would be beneficial to conduct the experiment on a larger scale. Also, teachers must be willing to incorporate varied exposure to vocabulary as well as adjust a unit's lessons to address misconceptions found from student feedback. Some teachers may not be willing to do this if it curtails the class's progression of course material.

Despite its limitations, the study is useful by revealing that a teacher can implement varied vocabulary instructional strategies within an established curriculum. Teachers need to have professional confidence in their decisions. These decisions should be based on student feedback, and this feedback should guide instruction. Misconceptions should be discovered and addressed before the end of the unit, and teacher empowerment could be the key in making this possible.

Research findings suggested that there is not one best way for teaching vocabulary; rather the use of multiple strategies including repeated exposure is best for student retention (Medo and Ryder, 1993; Bryant et al., 2003; National Institute for Literacy, 2007). This study validated previous research on vocabulary instruction. Future research may focus on implementing vocabulary instruction teacher training program, vocabulary instructional strategies effect on student engagement or student feedback guiding content-area vocabulary instruction.


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Christa J. Harper

University of Sioux Falls
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Author:Harper, Christa J.
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Date:Dec 22, 2018

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