Using Embedded Vocabulary

Science Explored | Published  November 05, 2012

Driving down a forested-lined, concrete path we found the Branch School ahead. Boasting outdoors education, a productive student-run garden, ubiquitous hands-on learning, and an extremely welcoming staff, the Branch School is a hidden gem of a school.

We had the pleasure of joining Sue Hutchison's 6th graders on this past Thursday as they learned about the difference between prokaryotes and eukaryotes using Sue's secrete weapon:  embedded vocabulary.  The students were expected to understand the difference between a prokaryotic and eukaryotic cell (6.12AB); whereas, cell biologist can easily distinguish between these cell varieties, that's no easy task for a student! 

Sue's technique was subtle and extremely effective.  Much like how a coach does not sit his new recruits in front of a blackboard to sketch out the theory of football, but instead, has them learn by playing football, Sue had her students learning complex vocabulary by interacting with models of both cell types.  "It's like a shield that protects the cell," said one students confidently as he held two Ziplocs that represented the cells.  "That's the cell membrane," responded Sue and elaborating on its purpose.  In this exchange alone, we see how Sue was eliciting her students to describe the words she wanted them to learn. In fact, their desire for a word to name what they describe prompted her to give it to them.  There was not a dusty, boring list of vocabulary words to copy off the board as the students came in; the students learned words as they touched and observed the prokaryote and eukaryote Ziploc baggie models.

The students' understanding of how prokaryotic cells differ from their eukaryotic cells was achieved deductively rather than inductively.  Sue did not prompt, push, or force her students to understand how prokaryotic cells lacked nucleus; she relied on their natural curiosity and ability to recognize differences.  Students were able to notice all the main differences between the two cells types this way:  presence of the nucleus, relative mass, complexity of the DNA, size of vacuoles, etc.

As you watch the video of Sue's class, the benefits of embedded vocabulary instruction are pronounced.  Every coach is a master of embedded language instruction; you don't see a football coach teaching his team what a forward pass or a "sack" is through drawings on the board.  Football players learn these terms by doing; once they do it, they crave a way to describe it and thus seek a word to name it.  Students can learn academic vocabulary in the classroom in the same way.  Through embedded vocabulary instruction students are engaged, they develop listening/reading/writing skills, can absorb more information at once, and are able to retain in longer.  Traditional language instruction is comparatively dull and tends to bounce of the mind - there are certainly some vocabulary words I learned from a list on the blackboard in college that are not with me any longer.  STEMscopes is designed to promote embedded language - that is why as you go through a scope, students first do the hands-on and then learn the vocabulary words.  The teacher has the opportunity to have the students develop a craving for a word to describe what they did in the hands-on lab.  If you haven't tried it yet, hop on the embedded language bandwagon and let your students learn new vocabulary in a fun, exciting way!


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