Every student had a container with an unknown liquid and a chart listing various characteristics: bubbly? foamy? translucent? transparent? viscous? The teacher tried to walk the first graders through the science lesson.

I picked up the girl I’m tutoring, who can read “Sim hit the big fig” — with help on the Sim/Sam issue — but doesn’t know what a fig is. I said it was a purple fruit, but didn’t discuss its viscosity.

When I was in first grade, I learned to distinguish a maple leaf from an oak leaf. That was pretty much the whole science curriculum until we hit fifth grade, which featured the duck-billed platypus.

About Joanne


  1. My kids learned much of their ES science (and history and all geography) outside of school. in a top school in the most affluent and highly-educated side of Montgomery County, MD. They also roamed the neighborhood and family locations (summers).

    Although I went to a small-town ES, my Normal School-grad teachers started us off with good fundamental science. The 1-4 teachers (no k) had taught the same grades for decades and had divided up the science curriculum according to personal interest and knowledge. The first-grade teacher, an avid and expert gardener, handled plants and birds. Second grade was animals. Third and fourth were chem, physics and the solar system. There was some of each area in each grade, but the curriculum for all grades was designed by the teacher with the most knowledge of it. I remember growing various plants on the first-grade windowsill and discussing heliotropism, photosynthesis, sap (maple syrup) etc. We did leaf and bark collections, too. The second-grade windowsill was for terrariums and aquariums; we hatched fish, frog, turtle and birds’ eggs, hatched caterpillars and butterflies and had mice, rabbits, garter snakes, toadsetc. etc. All of the above (and the worms and insects to feed them) were brought in by us – we roamed freely around the neighborhood and countryside. No doubt, today’s schools would be horrified at our feeding the baby frogs to the garter snake, but we weren’t very sheltered. I remember accompanying the local artificial breeder around as he inseminated the dairy cows – it couldn’t have been later than 5th grade, because he moved out of town after that..probably not a common part of science classes.

  2. A lot of the kids I know are familiar with at least some weird words, but expecting a whole class to learn a lot of them seems a bit much. My own kids learn weird words because I teach science and forget that most people don’t consider my terminology to be ‘everyday words’…and having kids do work that they can’t really read doesn’t seem to be a good idea.

  3. Crimson Wife says:

    “Viscous” isn’t really that hard a word to teach kids if you explain it is a fancy word for “goopy”.

  4. There’s no harm in using the real words for things with young kids. The larger speaking vocabularies they have, the easier it is to learn the big words when they’re ready to read them. I would hesitate to suggest that first graders know how to read those words, however.

    I would probably have first graders either add an easier synonym next to the big word or draw a picture representing it if they can’t read those words yet. Then they can still participate in the lab, understanding what’s going on. Then, with repeated use in context, the big words can become words they know and own.

    Now that I’m teaching middle school science, I help students read the word “transparent.” I sure wish some of THEIR first grade teachers had used the big words!

    • I agree; I distinctly remember learning the right terminology, from the beginning of first grade and I taught my own kids. Kids delight in knowing big words and their meanings (and stuff in general): photosynthesis, metamorphosis, amphibian. Kids can learn from listening, through teacher explanations and from high-quality read-alouds in all subjects. They can expand their knowledge greatly, and years before most would be able to read the words. I think the Core Knowledge program places a lost of stress on this method of instruction for young kids.

  5. When I was in second grade, transubstantiation was part of my vocabulary. Gotta love big words.