Cover image for blog post titled Five Tips For Teaching Subject-Specific Vocabulary showing glossary and chemistry vocabulary cards.

Five Tips for Teaching Subject-Specific Vocabulary

Language is the basis of all learning.  We can not talk about a topic without the right vocabulary words.  These words help us organize information and connect ideas.  The key to making sure our children truly understand what they are learning is to teach the subject-specific vocabulary related to the topic.

These subject-specific words are referred to as Tier III vocabulary words.  They are words that we do not use often, but learning them is crucial to understanding a specific subject. In science, your children may need to understand words like ‘atom’, ‘cell’, ‘force’, ‘habitat’ or ‘tornado’.  For history, target words could include ‘anarchy’, ‘colony’, ‘democracy’, ‘migration’, or ‘urban’. In language arts or literature words like ‘mood’, ‘alliteration’, ‘foreshadow’ and ‘genre’ are important to understand.  Even math has Tier III vocabulary such as ‘horizontal’, ‘cubic’, ‘parallelogram’, and ‘symmetrical’.

When you think of all the Tier III words children need to learn to understand each of their subjects, it becomes apparent that you need a good plan in place to learn them!

Below are five tips for teaching subject-specific vocabulary words.

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Teach Target Words Before A Lesson

The first step is to teach the subject-specific words before you teach a lesson that uses them.  If you are using a structured curriculum, then it is usually easy to pick out what your target words will be.  They will often be boldfaced in the curriculum and/or there will be a glossary that lists them.  Sometimes there will be boxes or sidebars within the text that highlight target words.

You can decide which are the most critical to understanding the lesson and start with those words.  These are the words that will help your children understand the gist of the lesson.  Then, you can add in other vocabulary words as you get deeper into the concepts you are learning.

If you are pulling together your own materials to create a curriculum or unit study, then make sure to create a list of target vocabulary words as you pull the materials together.

Pages in a science curriculum showing a box of target vocabulary words.

While it is important to begin to teach the vocabulary words before the lesson, it is not necessary for children to have fully learned the words before you start the lesson.  So how do you start to teach the vocabulary words?

Picture the Vocabulary Word

Attaching a visual image to the word helps people learn and remember the information much better. So you will want to find an image for each vocabulary word in the target list.  If there are not clear images in your curriculum for each word, you should be able to easily find pictures by searching the word in Google Images.  You can print out these pictures and glue them on to index cards to make flashcards.

I started creating cards for the vocabulary words in our science curriculum a few years ago and the front of the cards have a picture along with the target word.

Here is an example of different types of fresh water vocabulary from when we were learning about biomes:

Six vocabulary words with pictures on separate cards.

Having your children draw out concepts also helps them visualize the word and incorporates more of the brain through the movement of drawing.  You could have children draw out their flashcards or create a notebook of the target words.  Below, is a drawing by one of my children of what he remembered about mitosis.

Drawing of a cell going through mitosis.

Sometimes, you can even add some movement to learning the vocabulary word.  We were learning the word ‘amble’ during James and the Giant Peach a few years ago and we all ‘ambled around the house for a few minutes to help us remember it!

Regularly Review Words

Once you have introduced the target words with a picture, provide a short description of what the word means.  Then, review the words regularly.

Here are the descriptions of the fresh water vocabulary above:

6 backs of vocabulary cards with descriptions of 6 different words.

I suggest short bursts of review about ten minutes in length once or twice a day.  If you are feeling overwhelmed by vocabulary words for multiple subjects, then you can review words for one subject in the morning and words for another subject in the afternoon.  You could also start each lesson with a ten minute vocabulary warm-up related to that lesson.

Once you have introduced your children to the vocabulary, each short vocabulary review session should incorporate the different levels of active recall below.

Practice Active Recall

It is important when learning any information that we practice recalling the information.  When we look at a word and a definition several times, our brain will think it knows the information well.  But, if you hide the information and then have to recall it, are you able to?  This is called active recall and is so important to actually committing a concept to long-term memory.

There are several levels to active recall.  You may find you want to have your children practice their vocabulary words at each of these levels.  Or you may find that they learn words (or at least some of the words) quickly and you can skip levels when practicing active recall.

  1. Identify the words from a group when given the definition:  You lay out or display 3-5 words, give your children a definition to one of the words and then they name the word.  You might just write the words on a whiteboard or lay out the flashcards that were used to learn the words.
  2. Name the word when given the definition:  This level is similar to the previous one, but in this case you are not giving your children a choice of words.  They have to retrieve the word from their memory when you read the definition.  Hangman can be a fun game to practice at this level if you have the time.
  3. Identify the definition from a group when given the target word:  Now instead of just recalling the word, we are having children tell us the actual definition of a target word that we give them.  At this level, you would have 3-5 definitions for them to choose from.
  4. Give the definition when given the target word: This is the highest level of recall where you just give them a word and they need to tell you or write down the definition.  You could also give them a list of the target words for the whole unit and have them write down everything they remember about the words.

If your children like to practice active recall through playing games, then check out Quizlet.  You can create flashcards for each word and then your children can play a variety of games.  You can also access flashcards made by other people, which may save you some work!

Use Words in Hands On Activities

When we first learn words as a toddler, we have to hear those words several times before we use them.  (Some studies have found we hear words 500 times before we use them!) Then, we practice using those new words.  Sometimes over and over and over! (I remember a car ride where my oldest child named every ‘wheel’ he saw out the window!  🙂 )

If we want our older children to incorporate subject-specific vocabulary into their long term vocabulary we need to create activities where they will have a chance to hear and use these words over and over again.

One great way to do this is to make a hands on project that models what they have learned.  While we are making each piece of the model, we, as teachers, can use all those target words we have been learning.  Our children, in turn, will start using the words, too.

For example, earlier this year in science, we made models of cells with Styrofoam balls, clay and paint.  Our children heard the words we had been learning while I gave directions for each part of the model.  When I remarked on their work, I made sure to use the vocabulary again.  Then, when they labeled each part of the cell, we used the vocabulary again.  This activity allowed them to hear and use each of the target words several times.

Model of an animal cell made from a Styrofoam ball, paint and clay. Model of a plant cell made from a Styrofoam ball, paint and clay.







Download a Sample of Our Vocabulary Cards

It may seem like a lot of work to create flash cards or notebooks for each subject’s vocabulary words.  A short cut is to buy already made vocabulary cards.  You can try a FREE sample of our Biome Vocabulary Cards below:

Or check out the cards from these different science subjects:

Cover for the product Chemistry Vocabulary Concept of the DayProduct cover for bundle of vocabulary cards for seven biomes showing title and picture of one card from each biome.





Cover for Biology Cards Vocabulary Cards showing pictures of front and back of some cards and title of the product.Cover for the product Weather Vocabulary Concept of the Day Cards

Teaching Tier II Vocabulary Words

Today, we have learned how to teach our children Tier III or subject-specific words in our homeschools, but what about Tier II or high level, high frequency words?  These are your POWER words because they can be used across a variety of subjects and situations.  Check out Five Tips for teaching Tier II words through literature to learn more:

Copy the book James and the Giant Peach with two vocabulary word worksheets

What are some strategies you have used to learn vocabulary in your homeschool?  Please share!

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Lindsay Leiviska

    So good, Randi! Language is the basis of all learning. Yes! So good.

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