Lesson Plans

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Science Words with Multiple Meanings

Lesson Question:

How can the Visual Thesaurus help students learn some interesting and polysemous science words?

Applicable Grades:


Lesson Overview:

In this lesson, students will explore how the word cell came to have a scientific meaning in addition to non-scientific meanings. Then, students will work in small groups to explore the multiple meanings of other common science terms. Groups will synthesize this knowledge by coming up with examples of the words in both scientific and other contexts.

Length of Lesson:

One hour to one hour and a half

Instructional Objectives:

Students will:
  • explore the history of the scientific term cell
  • identify the multiple meanings of some common science terms
  • share examples of words being used in both scientific and other contexts


  • electronic white board
  • computers or iPads with Internet access
  • "Science Words with Multiple Meanings" chart [click here to download]


Exploring the history of the scientific term cell:
  • Ask students, "What do the objects in this image remind you of? List as many ideas as you can." Give students one minute to generate answers to the question.
  • Invite students to share some of their answers with the class. Some possible responses are blocks, bubbles, bricks, a honeycomb, and mesh. Students may identify the objects shown as cells. Even if they do, continue to elicit a range of responses to the question.
  • State that the objects shown are a kind of plant cell, viewed under a microscope. Point out that these objects are called cells because Robert Hooke—the 17th-century scientist who discovered these structures—did exactly what the class just did; he thought about what the objects reminded him of. In his case, he decided to call the structures cells because they reminded him of the small rooms, or cells, in a monastery. We still use the word cell to refer to these structures, which make up all living things.


Using the VT to define content-specific language :
  • Show the class the Visual Thesaurus word map for cell on the white board.

  • Explain that, thanks to Hooke, cell is a word that has both scientific and non-scientific meanings. To illustrate this point using the VT, have students identify the science-specific meaning in the word web display for cell (i.e., "the basic structural or functional unit of all living things"). Then have students identify meanings that are specific for contexts outside of science (e.g, "a small room in which a monk or nun lives," "any small compartment," etc.).
  • Explain that many science words have multiple context-specific meanings. In some cases, the scientific meaning originated first. In other cases, such as that of the word cell, the scientific meaning emerged later in the word’s history.

Identifying multiple meanings of some science terms:

  • Organize the class into small groups. Distribute a "Science Words with Multiple Meanings" chart to each group [click here to download] and explain that the left-hand column of the chart contains a list of words that have both science-specific meanings and other meanings in different "non-science" contexts.
  • Explain to groups that it will be their job to look each term up on the VT and provide one science-specific example for the word and one example of how that same word could be used in another context. Examples for the first word on the list, compound, have been provided.  (As the example entries show, one type of compound is the chemical union of two or more elements, whereas another type of compound is an enclosure of residences and other buildings.)
  • Give groups ample time to use the VT to explore the multiple meanings of each science term included on the chart and to provide examples of each word in a science context and in another context.


Sharing examples :
  • If possible, have each group present its examples to the rest of the class. If time is limited, you could quickly reconfigure the groups in a "jigsaw fashion" so that each new group could be made up of students from different previous groups. In this way, students could share their examples and be exposed to the variety of ways each word can be interpreted.
  • If time permits, you could discuss if there is some overlap or connection between the scientific meanings of words and their other meanings. For example, how might a person who is described as inert be similar to an inert substance?

Extending the Lesson:

  • One way to extend this lesson is to have students research the etymology of the science words in the chart. Students could attempt to determine whether the word originated as a scientific term or acquired its scientific meaning later, as in the case of cell.


  • Groups' completed "Science Words with Multiple Meanings" charts should be assessed by checking to see that each row accurately reflects the appropriate usage of a word in a scientific context and in another context.
  • Students' understanding of the science vocabulary contained in the "Science Words with Multiple Meanings" chart  could be easily assessed by giving the class a "science vocabulary quiz" to see if students can correctly match science terms with examples of those terms.

Educational Standards:

Common Core State Standards for ELA and Literacy:

Vocabulary Acquisition and Use

  • Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words or phrases based on grades 6-12 reading and content, choosing flexibly from a range of strategies.
    • Use context (e.g., the overall meaning of a sentence or paragraph; a word's position or function in a sentence) as a clue to the meaning of a word or phrase.
    • Consult general and specialized reference materials (e.g., dictionaries, glossaries, thesauruses), both print and digital, to find the pronunciation of a word or determine or clarify its precise meaning or its part of speech.
    • Verify the preliminary determination of the meaning of a word or phrase (e.g., by checking the inferred meaning in context or in a dictionary).
  • Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.
    • Use the relationship between particular words to better understand each of the words.
    • Distinguish among the connotations (associations) of words with similar denotations (definitions) (e.g., bullheaded, willful, firm, persistent, resolute).
  • Acquire and use accurately grade-appropriate general academic and domain-specific words and phrases; gather vocabulary knowledge when considering a word or phrase important to comprehension or expression.

Science and Technical Subjects:  Craft and Structure

  • Determine the meaning of symbols, key terms, and other domain-specific words and phrases as they are used in a specific scientific or technical context relevant to grades 6–8 texts and topics.


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Comments from our users:

Saturday February 23rd 2013, 12:29 PM
Comment by: nancy W.
I love this visual resource...wish I could see more for elementary school grades K - 5 and would appreciate any recommendations from colleagues. Thanks Nancy

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