Vocabulary Logs

Vocabulary is an important part of my lessons and my teaching. Science, especially Biology, is a vocabulary dense field. If vocabulary isn’t explicitly taught, students have a hard time understanding the complex concepts and processes. English Learners need and benefit from explicit vocabulary development. There are lots of ways teachers incorporate vocabulary into their lessons. I’ve tried many things, and one method I keep going back to is the Vocabulary Log.

A Vocabulary Log is a Graphic Organizer

It’s simple! A “Vocab Log” is a graphic organizer where there is space for the Term, Definition, an Image, and a Keyword. Students use the textbook or online sources to write the definition in their own words. They use Google Image Search to draw each vocabulary word. Add terms like “science” and “diagram” and “labeled diagram” to the search to find good examples. The Keyword is a word or short phrase that either explains or represents the term, like a synonym. The Keyword is important for students to create because it is easier to recall than an entire definition. It is an easy graphic organizer to create and distribute. Or students can create a Vocab Log in their Science Notebooks or on binder paper using a ruler and a pencil. They can even make it a foldable with a fold and some snips!

A Vocabulary Log is a Classroom Routine

A system for vocabulary development is one of those classroom routines that I never regret putting in place in my classes early on in the year. I use it after a lesson, lab, or activity so students have something to work on that reinforces what we’re learning. A Vocabulary Log is great when students finish an assignment at different rates. It is also an easy lesson plan when I have a substitute teacher, because students can complete the work independently.

Sometimes I assign it after a lecture to reinforce new vocabulary. Most will finish, and whatever isn’t completed during class time becomes homework. Using class time wisely so they don’t have homework it is a motivating factor for students to stay on task and get it done. It is one of my classroom routines that helps with my classroom management.

Introducing the Vocabulary Log

This is a system that I want to use all year long, and I want students to be able to complete it independently. It is important to start early, start slow, and show students exactly how to do it correctly. I introduce the Vocabulary Log as one of the first assignments with science content in the first few weeks of school. I tell students that this is how we will do vocabulary for the rest of the year.

For the first time, I make a slideshow with the definition and images for each term. The definitions are simple and in plain language. I ask students to write the definition in the Vocabulary Log exactly as they see it in the slides. I adjust my pace to allow students enough time to listen and write the information.

After going through the definitions, I share my screen to show students how to find an image. I use Google Image Search for the pictures. I want students to know what criteria to look for in a good image. Detailed, labeled, and science specific images work best. I use the document camera to draw a picture. I illustrate one or two of the terms and students draw the images in their own Vocabulary Logs. Now they only have a few images left to draw to complete their first vocabulary log. I circulate the classroom and assist as they use Google Image Search to find and complete the remaining images. The textbook works great for students who forget their device!

Once students get the hang of it, I can remove some of the scaffolds. I show students what writing a verbatim definition looks like, and explain how it is confusing and less likely to be retained. The hardest part is getting students to write definitions in their own words. I’ve noticed that across the board, it’s something students need help with. Even 11th and 12th graders need help with it.

Grading the Vocabulary Log

I assign 4-6 words at a time, and allow for about 25-30 minutes of class time. Students have other class opportunities to work on their vocabulary before the notebook check, but ultimately it is up to them to get it done. Even if they need to finish for homework.

I usually pick around 10 terms for every unit. I can add more or less as needed. I don’t want to assign so many words that it feels like busy work. Check out my blog post, List of Vocabulary Terms for High School Biology to read my favorite science terms to teach in high school Biology.

In Biology, the first terms are System, Structure, Function, and Component. Check out my blog post How She Teaches What is a System? to read more about that lesson and how I introduce the Vocab Log. It is a great segue into Body Systems.

Each criteria (word, definition, image, and keyword) is worth 1 point. That means each term is a total of 4 points. I don’t usually give points for the Vocabulary Log until the notebook or binder check for the unit. By that time, it might total 30-40 points.

Challenges with the Vocab Log

After using this method many times, I have trouble getting students to write definitions in their own words. It is so irritating when students copy a high level encyclopedia definition word for word. If they don’t understand it, they won’t remember it. Students also forget the keyword or have a hard time creating it. I see how doing the keyword together is actually good review and helps them understand better.

These are “easy” points in a notebook check, but if students skip it entirely then they can take a big hit, like a full letter grade. It is unfortunate because I give them plenty of time to get the work done in class. They even have a few weeks notice to finish everything before the notebook check. I feel frustrated when I see students miss out on this learning opportunity!

Alternatives to a Vocab Log

There are many ways to directly teach vocabulary that isn’t a Vocab Log. I like to sprinkle in all of the strategies below and rotate through them throughout the year.

  • Foldable
  • Dividing Page
  • Crossword Puzzle (if I don’t have Science World Magazine, My Crossword Maker is awesome and has free and premade crosswords for Biology and lots of other subjects)
  • Coloring Page (I purchased this Biology Coloring Book, check out my blog post How She Teaches Being Alive to read more about it)
  • Labeled diagrams
  • Concept maps (like the Frayer Model)
  • Go old-school with Flashcards
  • Go new school with Flocabulary and Quizlet (Quizlet Live is super fun to play)
  • Highlighting (I love a good Annotation!)

What are your favorite teaching strategies for vocabulary development? Please share by leaving a comment. I would love to hear from you! To read more about me and my classroom, check out the blog posts below!

I create a space to display vocabulary. I could list 10-13 vocab words on the board at a time.

Published by How She Teaches

I teach Biology and Earth and Space Science in high school and middle school. I want to share my personal experiences and teaching milestones with anyone who wants to learn.

19 thoughts on “Vocabulary Logs

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