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Help! Biology Vocab is Killing Me!

The most common complaint I receive from my students is, "There are too many words, too many definitions, the words are too hard to spell........"

Sound familiar?  I read once that a first year biology class has more new vocabulary words than the first year of taking a foreign language.  I believe that this must be true.  When I talk to a struggling biology student, they will usually tell me that they understand the concepts and they understand the "how and why" things work as they do, but they just hate to memorize the vocabulary words.  

I try very hard to make my class a "concept" class.  I want my students to have a global understanding of how all the parts of biology fit together.  I want them to have the big picture and to be able to relate one process to another.  I want them to be problem solvers and critical thinkers.  But I am a bit old school!!  I still think the students need to have a mastery of the vocabulary that accompanies the concepts.  I think kids need to be able to spell the important and key terms.  (Don't even get me started on is becoming  a lost art!!  And why do kids think that it is okay to misspell words??  ARG!)

I thought I would make a list of the strategies and methods I use to help students memorize vocabulary words.  I hope it will give you some ideas that you can use with your students.  And then I would like to hear from you!  I need some new ideas, too!  If you have a strategy that works, please let me hear from you.

Things I do to teach biology vocabulary:
  1. My favorite is the old stand-by....the crossword puzzle.  I make a crossword puzzle for every chapter I teach.  Believe it or not, my students actually like these.  Sometimes I assign them for homework, but more often I use them to award some extra credit points on my unit tests.  I give the puzzle out a few days before the test.  If it is completed by test day....accurately....then I give some extra points on the test.  I think this is great reinforcement of associating the term with the correct definition, AND it is also good spelling practice.
  2. Teach the biological prefixes and suffixes!  I spend a good bit of time of the beginning of the school year on this.  If the student knows a basic set of prefixes and suffixes, it will help them all year long.  Examples include:  hetero, home, endo, exo, meso, trans, cyto, lysis, etc.
  3. Vocabulary Word Scrambles:  I write fill in the blank type questions.  The correct answer is given with the question, but the answer is scrambled.  The student has to unscramble the word to determine the answer.
  4. Flash cards:  An oldie but goodie!  I sometimes give extra credit if the student makes a set of flash cards to go with a particular chapter.
  5. Powerpoint Jeopardy Review Games:  This is a favorite of my students.  These are a bit time consuming to make, though.  My students really enjoy the game format.  I also post these on my school web site so that the students can access them from home.
I would love to hear your ideas.  Have you got a neat trick that would help the rest of us out?  If so, be sure to leave a comment.  I can always use a new idea!


  1. Here's a post on "Concept Maps" I wrote to reinforce vocabulary...but I'm sure it's something you already have done in the past....

    Also, I had an inservice on best practices with vocab and am sold on the practice of moving away from doing traditional notecards and instead having the students focus on drawing a picture and create motion that helps them to remember the meaning/represents the word. I am a 6th-8th science teacher.... Curious as to your reaction... What are your thoughts on this practice as a hight school teacher?

  2. Thanks, Courtney, for reminding me about concept maps! I use these all the time and completely forgot to include this strategy in my article above. And I also agree with your thoughts about moving away from traditional note cards/flash cards. After a student leaves my class, it is not likely that they will remember a ton of vocabulary words, but if they understand the process and the concepts, they are much more likely to remember it later on.

    In our high school classes, we are so pressed for time because there are so many objectives that have to be taught before the state mandated "End of Course" exam. There is not much extra time to allow the students to draw and diagram and interact with the material. As I teach, I have students draw and diagram along with me. I describe, analysis, compare and contrast the concepts, and then lay the vocabulary on top after the concept have been thoroughly covered. This seems to work well for me.

    Thanks so much for your comments!

  3. Thanks for your post back Amy! It's great to hear a HS science perspective on science vocab! :) I feel the same way....there is just so much to do in so little time...

    I love your blog, HS biology is what made me want to be a teacher! Thanks for the follow!

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