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HELP! The science vocabulary is killing me!!

Anyone who has ever taught or taken a science class knows exactly what is meant by the title of this article!

Students of all ages, enrolled in all sorts of different science classes, are faced with this age old problem.  I think there must be a conspiracy going on.  I think there is a little room somewhere, where the great scientific minds come together and challenge each other to come up with the wildest and most difficult words possible.  I actually had a student say this in class once!  As if learning the scientific concepts wasn't already hard enough, let's throw out anthocyanin, bioluminescence and cephalization!

Sometimes I feel like I am beating my students over the head with vocabulary words!  I teach my class in a very conceptual way.  I want them to UNDERSTAND concepts such as protein synthesis, photosynthesis and cellular respiration.  The understanding of the process is more important than being able to spout off a bunch of fancy words.  However, in order to explain and understand the concept, the student must be versed in basic vocabulary that can be used to explain the idea.

I start off each and every new school year with an activity called "What's in a Name?"  This activity contains 50 prefixes and and 30 suffixes that are commonly used in the vocabulary words of a life science or biology class.  I have the students practice making words with the prefixes and suffixes and I also give them a list of words that they have to decipher.

Take, for example, the words I listed above:

  • Anthocyanin:  "Anthos" means flower and "cyan" means blue.  These are blue, purple and red pigments found in flowers.
  • Bioluminescence:  "Bio" means life and "lumin" refers to light.  This is the production of light by living organisms in certain chemical reactions.
  • Cephalization:  "Cephal" refers to the head.  This is the formation of the brain in the anterior part of the body...the head.
By providing your students with a basic set of prefixes and suffixes, and requiring that they learn these at the beginning of the year, you have given your students a tool that can be used all year long.  I require that my students memorize my list, and we quickly have a test on the terms on the list.  The students will moan and groan, but they will already know many, if not most, of the terms on the list:  micro, macro, bio, photo, cyan, poly, di, mono, etc.

After doing this exercise with my students, I see the reward of it all year long.  It is such a great feeling, when later in the year, I see a student breaking a word down into individual parts and realizing that they can give a basic definition to a word they have never seen before!

Have fun teaching!

Here's the link to: Biology Prefixes and Suffixes: Master the Science Vocabulary


  1. I taught basic science and math prefixes and suffixes in my English classes. They kids came back to me at the end of the year always saying how helpful learning these were!

  2. Teaching prefixes and suffixes is always a great way to increase vocabulary.