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Teaching Students the Words to Think Critically About Science

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AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: More about a way to help students learn the academic vocabulary they need to understand their science books.

RS: Harvard professor Catherine Snow led the development of a teaching program based on a series of discussion questions designed to expose middle school students to new words.

AA: "So it's almost -- here, use a science term -- it's almost like osmosis, right? You hope that by the end the student will have absorbed these words into their long-term memory?"

Teaching Students the Words to Think Critically About Science
Teaching Students the Words to Think Critically About Science

CATHERINE SNOW: "It's osmosis, but it's actually -- as the students are exposed to these words and start using them, they get deeper and deeper into the meanings of the words. Because each time you hear it, it has a perhaps slightly more expanded semantic field."

RS: "Are these lessons, the contexts in which the students are using the words, are you doing this across the curriculum? In other words, they're using similar words [or] the same words in different contexts in math and science and social studies."

CATHERINE SNOW: "Exactly right. So on Monday the language arts teacher, for example, will go over the text that might be, you know, 'Should cloning animals and people be legal?' So on Monday they talk about what's cloning and what are some arguments in favor of cloning and what are some arguments against cloning. They read this, they talk about it, they are exposed to the five words for the week.

"And then on Tuesday there's a little science activity that the science teacher does that has to do with cloning. On Wednesday there's a math problem that the math teacher does about, possibly in this case, people's opinions: 'A poll was done and this percent of the people thought that cloning should be legal and this percent thought it shouldn't.' And some question around that setup. And on Thursday in social studies there's a debate. And then on Friday they write the essay."

AA: "And this program is all called Word Generation?"

CATHERINE SNOW: "It's called Word Generation."

RS: "How do you know that it's working?"

CATHERINE SNOW: "We know that it works in one set of schools where we have studied it over a couple of years. So we know that the students in the schools where we did the program learned the words faster and kept them better than students in comparison schools.

"We also observed that students from non-English speaking homes learned them even better than students from English speaking homes. So there's a special added push to the language minority students."

RS: "You started out with, you said, a set of schools in the Boston area?"


RS: "And this has gone beyond Boston now, correct?"

CATHERINE SNOW: "It has gone beyond Boston in two ways. The first way is that a lot of schools or individual teachers or teacher teams have found the website and are just implementing it on their own in various places around the country. But also we have a project to do a much more rigorous experimental study of the impact of the program. And we're working with schools in Baltimore and Pittsburgh to do that."

AA: "Now, do you think when we hear about the U.S. falling behind certain other countries in science, is part of it the problem that there's a deficit in the vocabulary?"

CATHERINE SNOW: "Part of it is certainly a problem of the deficit in the vocabulary, which is linked to a deficit in comprehension. You can't read and comprehend texts if you don't know the vocabulary in them. But part of it is also the other piece of this, which is that these skills of thinking critically about a text, debating it, trying to figure out what point of view is represented by the text and how you would counter that with another point of view, how you would argue about it.

"Science is argumentation, ultimately. The history of science is the history of people arguing with one another about the right explanations for things. And engagement in that level of argumentation and discussion is not something that these students have a lot of opportunity to do.

"It's meant to be fifteen minutes a week, so it's not like we think this program is going to change the face of American education. But it's sort of a benign bacteria. We're hoping it will get into classrooms and seed the idea that discussion is good and productive and it's not a waste of time."

RS: Catherine Snow is an education professor at Harvard, and she's Boston research director for the Strategic Education Research Partnership.

AA: Teachers interested in her program can find all the materials free of charge at And you can find the first part of our interview at our website,

RS: And that's WORDMASTER for this week. With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.