Social Studies and Science Vocabulary

It’s no secret that vocabulary is a major predictor for student success. Unfortunately, academic vocabulary has always been one of my students’ greatest challenges. Academic vocabulary words are the words that are traditionally used in academic text, which are words that are not common in everyday reading. These words are important because they help students comprehend text across different content areas such as social studies and science.

Two books that have completely transformed my vocabulary instruction are Bringing Words to Life and the Marzano’s Building Academic Vocabulary. One of the biggest takeaways from my reading is that vocabulary instruction must be intentional, purposeful, and planned.

vocabulary resources

One of my favorite strategies for teaching academic vocabulary is frontloading or preteaching vocabulary. This technique is highly recommended for ESL or ELL students, but I’ve found that it’s highly beneficial to everyone. Frontloading vocabulary is a before-reading strategy where you introduce words to students through photos, analogies, metaphors, and symbols. When you introduce the words, give students time to discuss the words with partners (think/pair/share), small group, whole group. Pre-teaching vocabulary is not having kids look up definitions or other boring practices.

But First, We Plan

I’ve learned that I have to plan my vocabulary instruction and absolutely cannot wing it. When I start without a written plan, I don’t follow through. The first step in planning academic vocabulary instruction is to create a list of academic vocabulary to be taught in social studies and science. Below you can see an example of my social studies and science vocabulary terms. You can click here for a PowerPoint version or here for a PDF version. Since our standards and students are so varied, you’ll have to find a system that works for you.

When teaching vocabulary, keep it simple. Whenever I try something elaborate or time consuming, I end up quitting by Halloween. My approach to teaching academic vocabulary is very basic and consists of three steps.

Step 1

Introduce vocabulary. During this time, it’s essential to keep students’ interest, so keep this portion of the lesson VERY brief. Try to present the word in an engaging way as possible, and then give examples, pictures, symbols, synonyms, or examples of the word. Allow students to briefly discuss the word with a partner or a small group (who they sit with at their table).  My favorite strategy is think, share, pair, because it’s so quick, easy, and effective.

Step 2

Add the word to students’ notebooks. Since I’m limited on time, copies, and paper, I don’t print anything out for the vocabulary. I simply have students draw a version of the Frayer Model in their notebooks. We fit two boxes on one page, and we almost always add a definition, example, and picture. In the fourth block we may use synonym, antonym, non-example, or sentence.

Step 3

Review with games. The first two steps should be short and sweet, and Step 3 is when the fun begins! Anyone who has taught more than a week or two knows that review is essential for students to be able to store and retrieve information from their short term and long term memory. Review shouldn’t be boring. It should be a part of the day students look forward to, not dread. This vocabulary review gives students a basic knowledge base that will allow students to soon develop a deep understanding of those concepts.

I suggest cycling through four games of your choice. Any more than that is hard to manage and create. Four is enough to keep the games novel for students, which prevents them from losing their effectiveness. As you begin to plan your games and the terms reviewed, you will need to decide if you only want to review the words in the particular unit you are studying or if you want your review to be cumulative. I personally like cumulative reviews, because I feel like it prevents students from forgetting some of the more difficult terms. At the beginning of the year, I usually incorporate some second grade grade vocabulary words into our games, because each of the games need 20-30 words.

I Have, Who Has

This is a great game for whole group review. Each student will need one card, and some students may need to have two depending upon how many students are in your class. It is important to use all the cards in a set. Choose a student to go first, and have her read her card aloud.  The student who has the card reads “I have __ who has ____”.  Then the student with the card that answers the question responds. Every card in the set is connected to a card before it and a card after it. The process continues in this until all of the cards have been read. You can get a free science set here that you can use for an example! These don’t have to be fancy. You can make them on index cards and they’ll be just fine!


BINGO is one of the oldest games in the book, but that doesn’t make it any less fun. It’s a great way to review social studies and science terms. I give each student a BINGO board and call out one question at a time. If the student has a word that is the answer to a question, they cover the word with a counter or other marker. You can download a free geography BINGO game here.

Guess It

One of my students’ favorite games of all time is Guess It, which is similar to Headbandz. The great news for this game is that it requires little to no prep. To play have a collection of social studies or science terms on index cards. Have one student chose a card. Without looking at the word, the student should hold the card to their forehead so the word faces out. Students should then give clues about the word so that the student can guess the term. We usually start the game by playing a few rounds with the whole class and then I break students into groups of three or four. The discussions I hear during this activity make my teacher heart smile every time!
You can write the words on index cards or print a pre-made set. I printed the cards from my social studies and science word wall cards. To save paper and ink, I’ve even printed multiple pages on one piece of paper, because you don’t need anything big for this activity.

Board Games

I honestly don’t know why I didn’t think of this one sooner! Why not use board games to make task cards a little more fun!? You can ask for donations of used board games such as Chutes and Ladders and Candy Land, and use those board games with social studies and science task cards. The options are endless, because you can make the rules whatever you want.
I use task cards with board games. I have students draw a task card. They have to read the task card out loud and answer the question. A group member checks the answer key to see if the question was answered correctly, and if it was the student gets to spin or roll (depending on the game) to move ahead on the game board. I don’t recommend Monopoly or other games that aren’t easily adapted.

Word Wall

I also like to display all of my essential science and social studies vocabulary on a work wall. I consolidate math, social studies, and science word walls into one large word wall. I’ve printed large letters that I display across the top of my word wall, and I hang brightly colored ribbon underneath each letter.word wall

IMG_2709 science word wall

I’ve made a a version with a white background or a chalkboard background. I love the chalkboard version, but I definitely don’t like how much ink it uses!

science word wall

Both social studies and science word wall cards are available in my TpT Store. The science word wall cards include over 70 different terms. All terms necessary for teaching the Georgia Standards of Excellence are included, as well as several more!
science word wall

I know it’s a lot, but this first step will make a tremendous impact in your science and social studies instruction.


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