Differentiating Vocabulary to Reach All Students in Social Studies and Science


Teachers need to reach students of all ability levels in one classroom. You have English Language Learners, gifted students, and each one of your students has different background experiences that play a role in how they receive information.

You may have support for reading and math classes. Since these subjects are assessed using standardized tests, it is more likely that students are grouped according to instructional levels or you have more resources for differentiation. However, for social studies and science teachers are often left alone wondering how to reach everyone, engage lower level students, and challenge higher level students.

Using a differentiated vocabulary will do just that. Science terms for many units can be challenging for students to remember. They understand the content but when it comes to assessment, they are left drawing a blank as to how to spell or say the words.

Differentiating vocabulary in social studies and science helps in the following ways:

  • All students are challenged and lower level students are able to access the curriculum without feeling overwhelmed.
  • If the vocabulary for lower level students matches their instructional level and still relates to the curriculum, you are reaching their reading skills as well.
  • Students won’t feel bored (it’s not to easy) or they won’t feel alienated (it’s too hard and they hate science/social studies).

You can differentiate vocabulary in the following ways:

  • Make 2-3 sets of vocabulary, a middle, low, high type of scheme.
  • Assess students on the vocabulary they’ve learned with differentiated assessments.
  • To practice vocabulary, partner students who are at the same level.

For example, here are two different vocabulary lists – I call them Level 1 and Level 2 for a plant life cycle unit:

Level 1 – soil, sunlight, seeds, stem, roots

Level 2 – photosynthesis, pollination, germinate, chlorophyll, minerals

In this unit, students will do the same activities with the word set according to their level.  The assessment looks the same, but the vocabulary is changed according to their needs.

Differentiating vocabulary is the easiest way to help you in the classroom to feel confident that you are meeting all the students’ needs. It also helps the students feel confident and challenged in the classroom.

There are several life cycle units that I wrote with a differentiated vocabulary. They can be found in my store here. There are two sets of vocabulary with each unit and an assessment to match each type. A free sample of the life cycle units is available in the free resource center.

I want to hear from you. How difficult would it be to differentiate vocabulary in your classroom? Would it be time consuming? Would you rather just plow through what you have? Is it something you would like to have ALREADY available to you in your social studies and science teaching?

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