Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Unlocking Science Vocabulary

Scientific concepts can be difficult enough on their own, and the long vocabulary words used in science can make the subject seem incomprehensible to some students. Happily, many common words in science can be deciphered by considering the word's morphemes. A morpheme is a small, meaningful part of a word; for example, “in-“ in the word “indivisible” means “not.” 

Some good morphemes to start with are micro- (“small”), therm- (“heat”), and photo- (“light”). 

How to Use Morphemes

Beginning with the target word to be studied (“thermometer”), present the definition of the word, and the crucial morpheme (therm-) and its meaning (“heat”). Ask students to determine how the morpheme’s meaning is related to the meaning of the word. Then ask the student to come up with several other known words that contain the morpheme (e.g. “thermal, thermometer”). In the case of “thermometer,” it may also be useful to teach the morpheme -meter (“measure”).

Finally, present students with other scientific words containing the targeted morphemes. Explain that -phile means “lover of” and ask them what a thermophile might be, or tell them to think about the word “altitude” and figure out what an altimeter does.

Students who enjoy this kind of detective work about the meaning and origins of words might want to sign up for's Word of the Day or check the Daily Buzzword at the Merriam-Webster website.

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