10 Top tips for teaching your students subject-specific terminology

No matter what subject you teach, you’ll know that getting your students to understand the terminology when you’re teaching new content is half the battle! In fact, not being able to grasp specialist vocabulary is enough to turn any student off learning, and that’s without considering the extra challenges your SEN and EAL pupils face. That said, we’ve heard from countless teachers so strapped for time that they say they can’t teach vocabulary on top of their already packed curriculum.

However, at Bedrock Learning we’ve found that language learning can be easily integrated into content teaching. With that in mind, we share 10 of our most effective strategies for teaching subject-specific terms – plus a bonus activity from David, a high school science teacher, to help students remember those words. You can also download our evidence-based, step-by-step guide for more help with effective vocabulary teaching. But first, we explain why pupils find these words so difficult.

Why is subject-specific terminology so difficult for students to learn?

As English teachers, we know that simple definitions just aren’t enough to teach specialist vocabulary. These specialist words are what education researcher Isabel Beck calls ‘Tier 3’ – subject-specific words that learners only come across occasionally and in particular contexts.

Students find these words especially difficult to learn because they’ve never heard them before, so don’t have any points of reference to help them. This is especially true with technical vocabulary in the hard and social sciences. If we come across a tricky word in English, one or two students may have seen it somewhere before, but how often does a Year 8 student see ‘chromosome’ or ‘tributary’ in their wider reading?

This means your students just aren’t equipped to get the most from your carefully-planned lessons. When they can’t understand the terminology, they can’t access the content you’re trying to teach.

However, content and vocabulary don’t have to be taught separately – and recent research shows how crucial subject-specific vocabulary teaching is. Here are 10 strategies and activities to help you teach new terms and make sure your class remembers them.

10 methods for teaching subject-specific terminology

1. Preselect key terms

We know that you’re short of time – so don’t waste a single second teaching students language they already know. Preselecting the words you’re going to focus on is key. Look ahead to the next lesson, think about which terms are going to prove tricky, and then assess students’ understanding.

To do this, you can use a grid like the one above. Alternatively, try making a continuum. Place a word on the board and ask students to place themselves along the continuum depending on their how well they understand it. It may take a few minutes to plan, but it’ll save you lots of time in the long run.

2. Present terms in context

Context is essential when we try to understand new words. Don’t start your lesson with a terms and definition match up, which can be confusing. Instead, start by giving the class a piece of text that uses the terms in context. Once they’ve seen the new words as part of a whole, you can start to explain what they mean on their own.

3. Break words down

Teaching morphology – breaking words into prefixes, suffixes and roots – is a really effective way to help students make links with things they already know. So many terms that seem intimidating at first actually contain parts that students are already familiar with. For example, they might know that hetereosexual describes someone who’s attracted to members of a different sex. Breaking this down and looking at the prefix ‘hetero’ will help them define what the new word ‘heterogenous’ means. Why not ask your class to design a root word display for your classroom wall or science corridor?

4. Create terminology trading cards

As you move through a unit and come across new key terms, get your students to design trading cards to represent the new concepts. On the front, they should write the term and draw a related image. On the back, they write a description plus two key points. Making the cards helps students to remember the new terminology, and there’s also lots of games you can play with them.

For example, you could split students into two equal-sized teams. Team A can only look at the term and picture side. Team B can only look at the description side. Students from Team B might ask: “who has a type of energy that comes from the Earth?” Team A might ask: “who has a description of geothermal energy?” Once everyone has found their partner, students can swap trading cards.

5. Make justified lists

One of the things we hear from students all the time is that they understand the stuff they’re being taught, they just don’t know how to explain it. Asking students to justify something is a great way of encouraging them to practice that tricky process, and it works really well in a scheme of work on variation or classification. Here’s an example.


Which image doesn’t belong under this title, and why?

Students should pick out the building here without too much trouble. What will be interesting is their explanations. You might hear variations on “it’s not a living thing,” at which point you can ask them what they think an organism is. It shouldn’t be too much of a leap from there to ask the students to come up with their own definition of the term ‘organism’ and hey presto, they’ve learnt a term without you having to do much at all.

6. Try charades

For this game, split the class into teams and give each team a word list. Students take it in turns to act out each word for the rest of their team to guess. Even though you might think ‘photosynthesis’ is impossible to act out, asking students to do this will really test their understanding of the term. Give it a go!

7. Play taboo

Put the class into teams. Write the new term at the top of a piece of paper and below write 5 obvious words that describe it. These words are ‘taboo’ – the students can’t use them. This means the players have to describe the new term in other ways to their team to help them guess the word.

8. Set up a game of bullseye

This game is fun because students get to throw things at the board! Start by writing your new terms on pieces of A4 paper. Scrunch the paper into balls and put them in a big pot. Bring up an image of a bullseye or draw one on the board. Each ring of the bullseye represents a different challenge and amount of points up for grabs. A student throws the word ball, you note where it lands on the target, and the student opens the ball to see which new word they have.

Make the tasks progressively harder as you move towards the centre. For example, if the student throws a word ball and it lands in the outer ring, they might have to say a sentence that uses that word. If the ball lands right on the bullseye, they must come up with a definition for that word. Try playing this in teams, adding up the points as you go.

9. Make bingo cards

Students have a bingo card with 9 new words on. You can ask your class to make them in the lesson, or design them beforehand. As you give clues – a mixture of descriptions, images, metaphors and so on – pupils cross off the words on their card. They shout “bingo” as soon as they have crossed off all of their new words.

10. Play jeopardy

To play this game, you give the answer and the students have to buzz in with the correct question. For example, if you said “equilateral triangle,” the students would have to say something like, “which type of triangle has 3 equal sides and angles of 60°?” Alternatively, you could say “this word describes a shape with 3 equal sides and angles,” for which the correct question would be “what is an equilateral triangle?”

Try this bonus activity

Once you’ve had a go at these strategies and games, try this to help your students remember terminology when it comes to revision time.

David, a science teacher at Oriel High School in Crawley, gets his students to make a keyword booklet they can add to each lesson. He starts the lesson by introducing key terms, and at the end, pupils write a definition and add images, analogies, synonyms, antonyms and example sentences. Introducing this into your lessons helps your students to record their learning and develop a more nuanced understanding of key terms. Get your students to make a pocket in their book to keep the booklet safe!

We’d love to hear how you got on with our tips and tricks, and if you’ve got any great ideas for teaching new subject-specific terms. Get in touch via Twitter or drop us an email at hello@bedrocklearning.org. And don’t forget to download our detailed, step-by-step guide to effective vocabulary teaching!


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