Teachers at Work

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Don't Stop Inferrin': More Thoughts on Out-of-Context Vocab

Wow! What a response my last column received. Any time The Washington Post excerpts your work, you know you're on to something. My thoughts on teaching vocabulary out of literary context struck a chord with many readers, and I thought it would be beneficial for all if I answered a few questions and shared a few further thoughts this month.

At the time of this writing, I'm only six school days away from the end of the year (not that I am reciting that number like a mantra on my morning commute...). Many teachers who read this have already packed up their classrooms for the summer. Therefore, let these ideas settle in for a few months, and, hopefully, inspire how you tackle vocabulary in the fall.

The questions and thoughts:

1. What about in-context vocabulary?

Oh, yeah, we still do that in my classroom. Everyone is welcome to stop reading and look up a word. (I keep a stack of dictionaries at the front of the room, or there are computers with Internet access always on in the back.) When we do stop, whether it's at my behest or at that of a student (or one of the other adults in the room, for that matter), I try to lead the class through the process of inferring the meaning of a word: "What does it sound like? Does it have any similarity to any word you do know? What would make sense in this sentence?" This is particularly popular with one of the cohorts that has a young man absolutely obsessed with Latin prefixes and suffixes, but all the classes are willing to indulge me for at least a bit.

I do think that the inferring method is worthwhile, but it always has its problems. If you don't believe me, consider the words bemused or presently, which do not bear the intuitive link to the words amused and present as students are apt to infer. Also, it's worth noting that inferring that really derail a class. Much as I want them to be able to use this technique on the SATs, I also do not want to spend 20 of my 45 minutes of class time working out what malice means, when I can explain it in 1 minute flat.

Another point on in-context vocabulary – call me crazy, but I do not think we need to know what every single word means as we read. At least, I do not.  I believe that there is a lot to be said for reading for understanding and enjoyment, not word-by-word literacy. Getting too caught up in in-context vocabulary can bog readers down. For example, my class read Edgar Allan Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum" this year. Have y'all read that short story? Man, there are some difficult words in there! If Poe wasn't writing about the surcingle, he was on about the scythe, and those are words you really need to know if you're reading the story. However, for much of the rest of the story, it is completely unnecessary to know what every single word means. We powered through, instead. If we had stopped at every unfamiliar word, the story would have taken 800 hours to read and, I'm guessing, lost a great deal of the driving sense of suspense that makes it truly remarkable.

2. Isn't out-of-context vocabulary just like what we used to do in high school?

I can't say for sure, but probably. I certainly learned vocabulary by being given a list of words to memorize and use in a sentence when I was in middle and high school. I do not remember precisely which words I learned in that manner, but my vocabulary was large and high-functioning from a very young age, as is true, I dare say, for many reading this article. The big disadvantage here, as I have mentioned in last month's comments, is that I did not learn to pronounce words properly – they existed purely in written form for me, which is why I still say ethereal and abscond incorrectly. I have tried to keep this from happening in my classroom, by saying the words frequently myself, making a big show of looking up a word I do not know how to pronounce, and generally avoiding causing shame when a student tries but fails to nail a pronunciation properly.

In educational theory of the last decade, much has been made of the horror of rote memorization. As someone who can still remember the song I made up to remember the location of the Scandinavian countries in my freshman year Geography class, I can sympathize. I do not look back on that endeavor as a paragon of educational greatness. On the other hand, I do remember the location of the Scandinavian countries, and I'm weirdly proud of that.

Thus, while too much rote memorization makes kids bored and woefully under-stimulated, a leeetle rote memorization can lock information into a young brain — information that can then be used. Over. And Over.

A few reminders, from my last column – this works best in my classroom when the students were given a small set of words (5 a week), and a variety of opportunities to practice using the words, including some that involve different styles of learning (e.g. visual, kinetic, musical, etc.).

3. What words did you use? Which ones stuck?

An excellent question. I mentioned that I got the words we used from an SAT list online. There are dozens of sites, and none has ever popped out to me as the definitive SAT word site (holla in the comments if you found it). I'd like to clarify what I look for in these lists, though, as I was able to teach about 100 words to my students in the course of a semester (some of those words were in-context or literature terms as well), and the sites offer upwards of 5,000 words.

To begin with, I tried to get a variety in types of words – not too many adjectives or verbs. A typical list might have two adjectives, two verbs and a noun. I avoid adverbs because they tend to be derivatives of adjectives; I'd rather just use the adjective for simplicity's sake. Also, I made sure to go over variations on the words with my students (exult, exultation, exulting, exultingly, exultant, exultantly) and try to keep them on track in terms of using the correct form in the sentences they were constructing. Reviewing what the different kinds of words are and what they do during the first semester really helped with this. Additionally, I draw a really firm line against usages like "She is very hostile" and "He is very perplexing." (I also make clear that I do not find sentences like "Ms. Reed taught us the word chastise!" to be amusing, not even when an adjective like kind or beautiful is appended before "Ms. Reed.") Finally, as I mentioned previously, I avoided words that have no practical application for my students. Coxswain, I bid you adieu.

As for which words stuck? Well, I guess I'll need to check back in with the kids next year. I'll get back to you! But my guess would be words that they'll remember will fall into three categories. First, the words that they will actually hear again, which means that they probably heard them before, just didn't know what they meant – corroborate and plaintiff fall into this category. (One student, a Law & Order fan pronounced herself delighted to now know what DA McCoy was on about!) Second, words that have hard consonant sounds seem to be easier to remember for my kids – fiasco and navigate and investigative are words I've heard them use in conversation, or saw appear on my end-of-the-year thank yous ("Ms. Reed, you were always candid. I didn't like it so much but now I see you were helping me.") Third, I think words that have a story behind them will remain with them. A great example is the word misshapen. One girl assumed it was pronounced Miss Happen, and that became a class saying ("Step off, Melissa, before you miss happen!"). I know that everyone there will remember misshapen, even if they start to mispronounce it every time!

Which words are gone with the wind? The vocabulary that they didn't know how to pronounce is probably gone. I might have gotten inimitable into their heads because they liked to hear me say it, but I think facetious has already flown away. So, too, are words that sound too much like other words that they're not extremely clear on (elusive and illusive). And, although I did try and try, I do not think I clarified the difference between inherent and inherit; I think I just terrified the majority of the class into never using either word again. Sorry, guys, especially those of you going into law or genetic science.

 One final tip – if you really want to get your class to remember a word, just tell them you do not like it. I made the mistake of making it clear that I did not care for the (made-up) word guiltify, which we learned at an off-site workshop attended by a handful of students. If I had a dollar for every time I have heard the word guiltify (or its – still made-up!!! – noun form, guiltification), I would have enough money for a spa treatment. Next year, I hope to make it clear to my class that I do not care for the proper use of commas.

4. What about spelling words? Do you use them?

At my current post, no, I do not. But I did at my previous school (they were part of a curriculum handed to me) and I do not have an issue with them. I was not a particularly good speller as a child and thus it always strikes me as extremely funny when I am asked to spell something, which happens frequently in my line of work. I do think that spelling tests helped me improve in my spelling, and that memorization is the only way to learn how to spell. As a person who would like to see more words spelled correctly in the world, I'm in favor of more people learning how to spell. So, yes, I am pro-spelling words.

Have I missed any major questions? If so, put them in the comments and I'll try to get you an answer as soon as I can. As we ease into summer, I'm wishing an easy, breezy one for all of you hard working teachers (and word lovers) out there. After I put my feet up for, oh, 20 days straight, I'll be back next month to tell you about an exciting initiative I've won a big grant to pursue in my school next year. Until then!

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An award-winning playwright and former contributor to the Visual Thesaurus Teachers at Work department, Shannon Reed is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also teaches. Read more about her work at shannonreed.org. Click here to read more articles by Shannon Reed.

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Comments from our users:

Monday June 21st 2010, 5:01 AM
Comment by: ThomasK
Have you published a book on this method? ;-) It might be interesting to an interesting addition/complement to the c ommunicative, context-based approach, which is now so much acclaimed. I am also in favour of referring to word roots (etymology, but not very technical), because it allows pupils to link words...
Monday June 21st 2010, 5:05 AM
Comment by: ThomasK
Have you published a book on this method? ;-) It might be interesting to an interesting addition/complement to the c ommunicative, context-based approach, which is now so much acclaimed. I am also in favour of referring to word roots (etymology, but not very technical), because it allows pupils to link words...
Monday June 21st 2010, 6:59 AM
Comment by: chris P. (tallai Australia)
A reely good reed
Monday June 21st 2010, 10:50 AM
Comment by: Jim P. (Frankston, TX)
I am an old retired Marine who believes that the art of communicating is not only the most interesting subject, but also the most important skill a person can learn. This is so because the ability to communicate well is practically a prerequisite to all other learning.

I would like to see a treatment of the pros and cons regarding the new internet "lingo." I.E., the use of "LOL" for "laughing out loud"--and the list of such shortcuts would be endless. Example: clean n yr hous while yr kdz R stil growin S lyk clearing D drve b4 it hs stopped *** ing MEANS: Cleaning your house while your kids are still growing is like clearing the drive before it has stopped snowing. But people do communicate this way. What will it come to?

Please forgive me for getting a bit lengthy here, but I have another "pet peeve." When I was a young Marine in the early '60s, I could pick up any directive or article or bulletin written by a professional and understand precisely what it said and what it meant--short, concise and to the point.

Today I find that many things we read are purposefully misleading with built-in ambiguity or "double-speak." It seems that writing or speaking this way has become some kind of "valued" skill--especially for politicians during campaign time. Please comment on this phenomena.


--Jim Payne
Monday June 21st 2010, 12:14 PM
Comment by: martha S. (dublin Ireland)
i am new to this so could someone tell me!(:
Monday June 21st 2010, 12:22 PM
Comment by: Katja L. (San Diego, CA)
How can anyone vote this one down? I bet they just got the wrong end of the scale, and thought "1" means "great". I really enjoyed this!
Monday June 21st 2010, 4:35 PM
Comment by: Rita C. (Mason, OH)
I think "out of context" might be a misnomer. You go to great lengths to put these words to use, within a "real" context, thus your resulting excitement and success! Here is what I think you did right that vocabulary books do wrong! First, you limited the words to five. In our school system, the weekly manditory vocab books include 20 words, and even my students (I am an SLP) have to tackle 10 of them.

Second, you chose words that were likely to have been heard, be heard again and be heard/seen in the future. Since it takes an average of 15 hits to help a word sink in (and again, for the language impaired student we suspect something like 30 hits), you are in fact using context--life's context--which is key.

Third, you recognize that if a child cannot pronounce a word, he/she is unlikely to store it efficiently in memory and is unlikely to recall and use the word in speech, let alone in writing. It seems you should not need to say this to anyone who has a brain, but alas, this step is too often skipped.

Fourth, language which is used is better stored, and more likely to be retrieved. The best way to improve recall is to use the word, so your sentence formulation task is a key piece. I have kids use each word in relation to a movie plot. Which of Harry Potter's skills were inherent to all wizards, which did he learn, and which did he inherit? In this way, they think through the context and relate the word to something they know.

Lastly, your use of word derivations as it relates to grammar is another key piece in the vocabulary building puzzle, I think. How can we ignore the grammatical context? So you see, your strategies are not truly "out of context" but might be described as "hands-on context"? Bravo!
Monday June 21st 2010, 6:14 PM
Comment by: Rocket
Great article. I totally agree with your statement that you don't need to know every single word in a story. I read The Little Prince in French class - a new vocabulary word in each sentence. It was so frustrating and dull. I thought I was horrible at languages. Then, several years later, I read "Not Without My Daughter" in German. I didn't understand every word, but I understood enough, increased my German vocabulary in a fun, not overwhelming way, and enjoyed the story. This was a much better experience and I realized that I am pretty good in foreign languages. A real confidence booster.
Tuesday June 22nd 2010, 7:49 AM
Comment by: El (Los Angeles, CA)
Dear Ms. Reed: Section 3, paragraph 5, lines 5-6 "Next year, I hope to make...proper use of commas", is all around confusing to me. What is, 'the proper use of commas'? I feel the answer cannot be an obvious, as I see commas used in your article. What am I missing? Thank you, if you have the to answer.
Tuesday June 22nd 2010, 10:08 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
That's good! EI, I think it's called reverse psychology. If she tells them she doesn't like using commas correctly (probably as she gives some examples), then they WILL learn the proper use! LOL (PS I use it here as we don't have smilies! Yet....)
Tuesday June 22nd 2010, 12:26 PM
Comment by: El (Los Angeles, CA)
Thanks Jane B. I knew I was missing something.
Thursday June 24th 2010, 2:52 AM
Comment by: ThomasK
One addition if I may, though I regret to say these notes don't elicit many replies: isn't a semantic network very interesting as well?

I mean: presenting words from a particular text (somehow belonging together, or presented as such) in a meaningful context, allowing us to limit the number of loose words to be explained in a text?

But I love this approach indeed !
Saturday June 26th 2010, 9:38 AM
Comment by: Ellen C.
"I believe that there is a lot to be said for reading for understand and enjoyment, not word-by-word literacy."

I was just noticing this in your third paragraph under 1.

[Fixed! —Ed.]

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