Collaborative Vocabulary

One of the hallmarks of high school biology is the firehose of new vocabulary words. If you’ve taught biology, you’ve probably heard someone say “it’s like learning a new language!” and it probably seems like that to a high school student who opens the textbook and sees a list of 20-odd vocabulary words in a chapter. (For example, in Chapter 11 of the textbook we use – Miller & Levine – there are 28 vocabulary words on the topic of cell division.)

On rare occasions, though, students will encounter familiar words that they remember from elementary or middle school. When this happens, learning the vocabulary is more like activating prior knowledge. Rather than send students to the textbook to look up definitions, it’s the perfect opportunity to use retrieval practice to help students remember what the vocabulary words mean.

One of the few units in high school biology where this happens is the ecology/ecosystems unit. In my experience, middle school science classes do a great job of exposing students to the terms that explain the relationships between different organisms in an ecosystem. When I showed my students a list of words, all of them knew, for example, what a carnivore ate. There were a few new terms, but even some of those words could be paired with vocabulary words students already knew. If students knew what a producer was, it was easy to connect the word “autotroph” to it.

I projected the vocabulary list on the board and had students work with a partner to define each term and write that definition in their notebooks. *Bonus – students use their own words to explain the meaning rather than mindlessly copying the textbook definition!* While they were working together, I could circulate in the room and listen for misconceptions, and help out groups that were stuck. Once I could see that the groups were done, we regathered for a whole class discussion of what the words meant. I asked students to give me their definitions for the words they knew, then explained the meaning of words they were seeing for the first time, such as “trophic level.”