Need Some Ideas to Help a Biology Teacher Teach Vocabulary to Struggling High School Students

I am an English Language Instructional Coach at a high school in California.  As an ELD coach, I need to work with teachers in all disciplines. Though I am an ELD teacher,  a teacher trainer, and adjunct prof in the teacher credentialing department of a local university, I don't teaching experience in biology (and other sciences).

My new assignment is to assist a 10th grade biology teacher who came to us from industry.  He has many ELLs (kids in this case who have been in special programs for years) and a 60% D/F rate with 95% of them being Spanish speaking ELLs. 

He feels that his students just don't understand the vocabulary.  His weekly lessons include 30+ words  a week.  He has tried index cards (Frayer models but scaled down a bit) with them, but for kids who are not proficient readers in English, this approach as used, is not the most effective I feel.  Students copy the word on one side and his definition on the other.  Most don't understand the definition so the cards are not the most effective.  He uses word searches, but I don't think it does much to boost their knowledge of words and definitions. 

He gives it his all week in and week out, but the numbers don't change.  He likes his students and it is all too obvious that they respect and like him.

I come to you all in the hopes that you may know of some ideas to raise the D/F rates which I could share with him.



Tags: ESL, English, bilingual, biology, sciences

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Memory requires two essential processes. One is making a meaningful connection and the other is repetition. I think that you mentioned the point of confusion for the students in this class---they do not understand the definition that they wrote on the back of the card. Kids can't remember what they don't understand. A quick google images search can provide the visuals needed for these students to "get" the concepts there may even be short You Tube videos that demonstrate a process. They can sketch a picture clue for the words on the lower portion of their cards to give them a visual clue as they study. You may also consider lowering the amount of words each week to 12-15 need to know words---maybe the rest of the words can be mentioned, but students absolutely need to have those 12-15 down pat for the test. That means that your Biology teacher can go into depth with a few words each day without putting too much stress on students' working memories (5-7 chunks of information in working memory at a time for adults).
I thought he was giving them too many words, but as a coach, I have to be very careful in what I say. I will share this with him tomorrow. He really does give it his all, but that is just not enough.


I agree with Marie G, especially identifying images. I would also add that organizing and categorizing the words would help. Finally, I'd recommend learning word parts. Scientific terminology is especially suited to that type of vocabulary learning.
Thank you. The more information I can share with him from professionals in the field, the more likely he will be to listen to me.

As a biology teacher in the Central Valley of California I try to limit vocabulary for my ELL students. I give weekly benchmarks(standard based quizzes) which they can retake to show mastery. I put up online quizzes with hotpotatoes to give them practice using the vocabulary and seeing how multiple choice questions and diagrams might look like on the benchmarks. ( I try to get them to take notes and use pictures to form their own graphic organizers with the Cornell notes our school uses. The more times they see the basic vocabulary the better they will do.
Thank you very much.

I like the site and your suggestions. I will share everything with small doses:)


I like your idea to give students benchmark tests that they can retake to show improvement and mastery. I worked with some ELL students at an afterschool program and they really struggled with math and science vocabulary. Their science teacher gave weekly vocabulary quizzes and expected them to keep pace with the rest of the class with little accommodation. The students enjoyed the content by grew extremely frustrated with the class simply because they couldn't handle the heavy vocab load. It looks like you have provided several ways for students to learn and practice new vocabulary. I recently read a posting about programs to help students with math vocabulary. Someone provided a link to a website called Spelling City ( It seems useful and allows users to create personalized vocabulary games. 

Thank you for your response.  Yes, can be used with any content teacher.  My students love playing the games with their key vocabulary in it.  I will forward your suggestion to the teacher.



Has he tried a visual dictionary? My degree is in English (I avoid math and science) but this visual dictionary may help.
Noted brain researcher Janet Zadina Ph.D. in her recent newsletter discusses a college neuroanatomy textbook which requires students to draw the structures they are learning about as a way of using multiple brain pathways to reinforce lessons. She notes "When students have to draw a concept, such as democracy, they must understand it and conceptualize it. This thought process is very valuable. The skill of the drawing matters not at all. It is the process that is so valuable. In addition, the drawing will be easy to recall later to help the learner’s mind connect to the information. It will make learning easier and faster. Keep in mind that most students will not necessarily enjoy this task, as it is mentally arduous. However, this effortful thinking pays off big and once they see the results, they will be more amenable to this task. Our tools may not always be popular, just as the needle in medicine is not popular, but it is a useful tool used appropriately."

As others have suggested, your 10th grade biology teacher may have to scale down the number of words or perhaps select the most critical ones and model most of the drawings to adapt this technique to his class but it certainly seems that adding a visual/graphical/drawing component to the vocabulary learning process may be a good approach to implement.

A very nice vocabulary learning website is SpellingCity allows teachers to create customized lists of spelling words and then automatically generates multiple web-based computerized games and quizzes for each list. The teacher will have to make sure that the "sample" sentences the games generate are appropriate for the language level of the students (by editing the sentences once the lists are generated) but once the lists and sentences are created, students can access them on their own from home, a lab, or the library for additional solo practice and the saved lists can be used again every semester.

Have you students type the words into 


In this site, the student type in the words and can chose to test their spelling, vocabulary, play a game or "teach me".  Depending on the level of English speaking students it may be too difficult or too easy. But have your students try it because I know my students really enjoy it!



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