8 Jul 2016

Do Kids Know That Word?

Choosing Age-appropriate Vocabulary in Science Communication

by Adrienne Montgomerie

Choosing words for kids' science materials can be tricky. Kids who are into science know a lot of vocabulary that isn’t in the curriculum. On the other hand, there’s no knowing whether any of the terminology taught in school is remembered. Heck, adults don’t remember most of the terms they were tested on in school.

But we have to start somewhere. And the easiest place to start is with the school curriculum.

Word lists such as the Children’s Writers Word Handbook, Dolche, and Modingler examine the number of times a child will be exposed to a given word at a given age. These systems survey literature that kids that age typically read. For my science vocabulary list, I took a much more restricted view, and examined only the elementary and high school curriculum expectations from the various ministries of education across Canada (as it became available and continues to change). The list records in which grade kids are exposed to various scientific terms. Of course, we can’t account for how often kids will see these terms, or for the impact of really keen or even disinterested science teaching, but the curriculum expectations provide a sort of baseline.

Why does this help? Because we can have a reasonable expectation that teens will recognize the term adaptation, because it is addressed in three grades by the time they are 15. And we can know to take extra care to explain the term heat sink because most teachers won’t cover that until Grade 10, when kids are about 14 years old, and they’ll learn about it only that one time. But even though climate is never presented as a key term, we might well expect people of all ages to have a sense of how the term is used, even if they can’t define it. Climate is used when discussing habitats in Grade 2 (ON), adaptations in Grade 3 (ON), and climate change in Grade 10 (ON), and we hear it in the news frequently.

Two other insights come out of this list:
  1. The spread of topics addressed across the country. Geology is a topic examined almost exclusively in British Columbia (in general science courses), for example. That should inform writers to always explain subduction zone and other seismological terms.
  2. The level of understanding the audience might have. To wit, a subject studied at Grade 11 will likely be understood at a more detailed and sophisticated level than a subject that was studied at Grade 3, even if we exclude the factor of how long there has been to forget.
Writers need to do some extrapolation from the lists that I have been compiling. Because I culled the stated vocabulary from the curriculum expectations, there are other, collateral terms, that writers could reasonably assume teachers are using. For example, characteristics must be talked about when discussing rocks in Grade 2 (BC) or classifications in Grade 6 (ON). The term chlorophyll is never listed in the expectations, but teachers might be assumed to talk about it when discussing chloroplasts in Grades 6, 8, and 11 (ON). Where it seemed reasonable, I included these terms and marked their grade level in brackets.

Field testing with your audience is a most useful test, and this vocabulary list will set you off on the right track.

How do you vet the vocabulary in your writing? Leave a comment below, join the discussion on Facebook, or Twitter @scieditor .

Adrienne Montgomerie is a science and education editor who helps publishers and businesses develop training resources. She believes we can make even the most complex ideas and procedures easy for learners to take in, maybe even to master.

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