Grade-level Science Vocabulary List for Science Writers and Editors

Or, How to write science at a level kids can understand.

Hey Paul, licensed under CC by 2.0

Science vocabulary, by provincial curriculum grade level

Children’s writers turn to vocabulary lists to ensure their target audience won’t find what they write inaccessible. Some lists are based on analysis of popular literature – listing the most common words in books read by kids at each age. Some lists are based on current literacy trends and theories relating to the number and complexity of words kids will know at various ages. (See Dolch and Dale-Chall and Mogilner.)

As a science textbook editor for the el-hi grades (that’s 1 to 12), reading level is always high on my list of priorities. The task is to explain difficult and often abstract concepts using accessible language. When learning complex new ideas, the last thing students need is to struggle with the language.

Reading level assessments are the second link in the “reference” bookmarks in my browser. (A dictionary is my first link. Style guides come after the reading level links.)

by wburris under CC BY-SA 2.0

Various equations are used to assess reading level. These take into account word length, syllable counts, sentence length, and strings of polysyllabic words. (Also see the Lexile measure.)

Imagine factoring science vocabulary into those equations. It throws the counts right off. (One wonderful publisher I worked with recommended replacing all science terms with “cat” before running the tests so that the terms would not skew the results. This treats scientific terms as high-frequency words.)

So, for all you science writers and editors out there, I have combed the science curriculum expectations from Ontario, BC, and some grade levels in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and the Atlantic provinces. I gleaned the vocabulary terms that students are expected to learn at each grade level. You can see the list of 1100 science terms for yourself.

Energy appears most frequently – in five grade levels – though probably relating to electricity as well as to biology.

These terms appear in at least three grades:

  • adaptation
  • biodiversity
  • current
  • dilute
  • distance
  • efficiency
  • heat
  • inhalation
  • kilowatt-hour (kWh)
  • load
  • neutralization
  • population
  • precipitate
  • speed
  • sustainability

Aside from this vocabulary, there is the language we use to talk about science: characteristics, properties, observations, and so forth. Evaluating what “reading level” those might be at is a little more challenging. How would you gauge it?

Then there is the debate over whether students will recall terms they learned in previous grades, or understand them at the level required in the present context.

Well, at least this list is a start. What do you think?

2 Comments
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  2. Added Manitoba’s elementary level vocabulary from their 2000 curriculum. No great surprises, besides that a 12 year old curriculum is current. Their learning expectations seem to align most closely with BC’s – which introduced concepts and terms at a surprisingly young age compared to ON.
    Chemiluminescence, bioluminescence, and convex/concave lenses or mirrors are added. – These concepts were addressed in other provincial expectations, but the terminology was not required.

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