Einstein ESL: How to Make Science Vocabulary Exciting for ESL Students

As a student, did you ever glance at your biology or chemistry textbook and wonder if the language you were reading was really English?

Back in college, it was all Greek to me.

(Though, to be fair, some of the terminology is rooted in Greek or Latin.)

I remember when I was a college student working towards my psychology degree, and some of the terminology in my neuroscience textbooks felt like it was a completely different language.

Every other word was a technical term or a chemical compound.

The only way that I could make sense of what I was reading was to make my own glossary as I skimmed over the paragraphs.

Still, I was reading science books in my native language. Despite this, I struggled to grasp and remember many of the technical terms.

If that’s difficult for me, how do you think an ESL student will cope with it?

Scientific terminology is difficult for most people to process, regardless of whether they’re native English speakers or not.

For ESL students, trying to make sense of complex words and formulas can be especially overwhelming.

How to Become an Einstein at Teaching Science Vocabulary

Teaching science as an English teacher comes with its own unique set of challenges. For starters, you can’t teach it the same way you’d drill other vocabulary words because science is meant to be understood, not memorized. And this means that you need to come up with a way to demystify complex theories, break down difficult words and teach science in a simplified, “Explain It Like I’m Five” manner.

It has been said that, if you can’t explain a difficult concept to a six-year-old, you don’t have a good understanding of it yourself.

While you don’t have to be Einstein to teach science vocabulary, it does help to have a working knowledge of the material you’re covering. That way, you’ll be better equipped to break it down into digestible chunks and explain it in a way that your students can relate to.

Here are 10 effective tips to help you, so that you’re the Albert Einstein of teaching science to ESL students.

10 Exciting Tips That Make Science Vocabulary Easier for ESL Students to Understand

1. Use a picture glossary to teach scientific terms.

Ever wonder why infographics have become so popular?

It’s because many of us are visual learners. When we see complicated content presented in pictures and illustrations, it’s easier for us to understand.

Similarly, picture glossaries are perfect for teaching those challenging science vocabulary words without overwhelming students with long, technical definitions. Instead of trying to translate in their head what words like “osmosis” mean, they can look at a picture and associate that image with the English word and definition.

If you’re looking for material, Merriam-Webster’s Visual Dictionary Online has a lot of interesting material available. Another book that’s popular among elementary teachers which can be adapted to teach beginner English students of all ages is “Science Content Picture Dictionary” by Learning Resources.

Material from both of these sources can easily be turned into classroom activities by printing pictures as flashcards or adding them into worksheets as labeling exercises.

2. Provide real-world videos of science vocabulary in action.

A good way to reinforce the material you cover in a lesson is by giving your students a chance to see the things they’re learning being applied in the real world.

The best thing about teaching science vocabulary is that this is incredibly easy to do with YouTube.

Incorporating real-world material into your lessons is as easy as finding videos that coincide with the science vocabulary you’ve been teaching your students. Since channels like National Geographic and the Science Channel have a seemingly endless supply of interesting videos covering astronomy, biology, chemistry, physics, technology and a number of other topics related to science, finding the perfect examples has never been easier.

Love teaching with exciting YouTube videos? FluentU takes them to the next level.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.

3. Teach prefixes and suffixes of science terminology.

Your students are more likely to remember science vocabulary if they have a good understanding of root words. For example, photosynthesis can be broken down into smaller words and taught as: photo = light, synth = make and isis = process. That way, your students will be more likely to remember that photosynthesis has something to do with light and the process of making something.

With that said, I’d be careful not to overwhelm students with too much information about prefixes and suffixes. It’s a lot of information to take in, but it’s not a bad idea to add a little blurb about it when introducing vocabulary.

If you need a resource for learning the meaning of prefixes and suffixes, Wiktionary is great for researching prefixes and suffixes.

4. Teach the root of scientific words.

Getting to the Roots of Science Vocabulary Levels 6-8 (Getting to the Roots of Content-Area Vocabulary)

Same as teaching prefixes and suffixes, breaking down the meanings of root words also goes a long way in helping your students recognize and understand scientific vocabulary.

Books like “Getting to the Roots of Science Vocabulary” (for beginner and intermediate ESL students) and the “Dictionary of Word Roots and Combining Forms” (advanced students) can be used not only to teach science terms, but also as resources for vocabulary-building exercises like categories and taboo words.

5. Ditch complex science resources.

Unless your students are advanced English speakers who are capable of breezing through a TOEFL or IELTS exam, they shouldn’t be learning from English-language science textbooks that correspond with their grade level.

Instead, you should try to use science books designed specifically for ESL students whenever possible. And remember, if you must use academic textbooks made for native English speakers, go a few grade levels below your students’ English proficiency level.

Science books by Visual Brand Learning are perfect for teaching scientific material in an easy-to-digest way. The content is informative without being overly complex, making it great for reading together in class or assigning to students as homework.

6. Include props and hands-on activities in your vocabulary lessons.

People tend to learn better when they get hands-on experience, so why not include experiments and hands-on activities in your classroom?

For most science-oriented vocabulary lessons, this is incredibly easy to do. If you’re teaching anatomy, bring in a model skeleton and have students touch the different bones and muscles. For geology, you can have them handle different rocks and minerals.

The idea is to make your students learn through experience, not just memorization. This will not only create a fun learning environment, it’ll also make your students more likely to remember the vocabulary covered in their lessons.

7. Get hands-on with science-themed arts and crafts.

Do drawing and coloring activities with young students. The beauty of working with young learners is that they’re always happy to break out the crayons, glue and scissors for an art project. So when you’re covering basic concepts like weather, plants, animals and geology, all you need to do is having them color, label and cut out pictures relating to their topics.

For adults/advanced learners, it’s a little trickier. Not everything can be drawn and colored, and older students aren’t always as keen to do arts and crafts. But they can still have some fun with hands-on activities like making and labeling models or dioramas, or making diagrams with poster boards. Anything from chemical compounds to the anatomy of a cell can be taught in this fashion.

8. Show YouTube videos of experiments.

Unless you’re teaching at a big school, there’s a good possibility that you won’t have access to a science lab for experiments. While there’s no arguing that everyone loves a good hands-on lab session, you can still keep your students entertained through video clips.

We’ve already talked about the great benefits of YouTube for teaching science lessons. Now you’ll be happy to learn that they’re ideal for showcasing science experiments when you lack a lab.

The YouTube channel, Home Science, is filled with exciting science experiments that you can show your class. You can even turn the experiments into an activity by explaining or showing part of the video and having students guess the outcome.

9. Have students write science research papers, following the steps scientific method.

Research projects are a great way to help teach science vocabulary while giving your intermediate and advanced students a reading-based and writing-based assignment.

If you want to incorporate some of your vocabulary words into the activity, choose a topic based on the content you’re currently teaching and give the students a list of vocabulary words they must include in their papers.

10. Do interactive science projects together.

You don’t have to have a lab to do fun science projects. All you need is some basic arts and crafts materials and then you can do something exciting like build a volcano or create a model of the solar system with your class.

Just make sure to pre-teach vocabulary before doing a project with your students.


As you can see, teaching science vocabulary isn’t as hard as it looks.

With a little bit of hands-on activity and outside-the-box thinking, you’ll have your students throwing around words like deoxyribonucleic acid in no time.

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