Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

I'm a Believer: Vocab Words Out of Context

Traditional vocabulary instruction holds that students learn new words best when they learn them in context. Our "Teachers at Work" contributor Shannon Reed made the startling classroom discovery that context isn't always key.

You know the old Neil Diamond hit "I'm a Believer," right? Yes, it was also performed by the Monkees, if you are someone who chooses to acknowledge the existence of the Monkees. Anyway, here's my classroom version as of late:

I thought vocab was best taught in context
Seems the more words around it, the more my kids got
But vocab was out to get me (da doo da da)
That's the way it seemed
One meaning was what got stuck in the kids' heads
Then I tried out-of-context vocab!
Now I'm a believer!
The kids know many usages!
Not just one!

I'll stop there, before the Mr. Diamond's lawyers contact me... but I hope that this horrific little ditty serves as an introduction to this month's column. Yes, friends, I've become a believer in something I truly never thought I'd believe: namely, the concept that teaching vocab words out of a literary context can be just as empowering (and successful) for students as in-context vocabulary. Here's how I became a believer.

The Same Old Song

The concept that students best acquire and learn to use new vocabulary words in context dates so far back for me in my educational training that I no longer remember either learning it, nor a time when I didn't think it was correct. It makes perfect sense. We know that students who read frequently have higher levels of literacy and larger vocabularies. We also know that being able to recite a list of words and their definitions means nothing if student can't properly use the same words in a sentence with fluidity. Plus, many of us expand our vocabularies at a brisk rate by reading. I know that I rarely hear someone use a word that's new to me in conversation, but I am still stumbling upon words that are unfamiliar as I read, and that I learned the vast majority of words in my vocabulary from reading. All of these core ideas lead to a simple conclusion – students learn vocabulary best from reading words in context.

I'm not disagreeing. This way of teaching vocabulary is instinctive and wonderful for students who read. Yet as all teachers know (even as it shocks other adults), some students don't read, especially at their grade level or near it. One reason I've frequently heard to explain why they don't read is that it's dull or hard. Yep, come to think of it, repeatedly running your eyes over a bunch of words you don't understand is indeed dull. And hard.

So, in conjunction with my colleagues on the 11th Grade Team at my school, I began to think about how to make the acquisition of academic vocabulary more enjoyable for my students. Before long, I wondered what it would be like to switch the the process – instead of reading something with my students and pulling out the vocabulary words from it, what if I chose some higher-level vocabulary words, teach them, and let them discover the same words while reading? Although I did fear that somehow word would leak out to one of my education professors, who would no doubt swing by my school for a little hand-slapping, I decided it was worth a shot. Especially when no one could come up with a  reason not to, and statistics were showing that our students needed some kind of intervention in academic vocabulary, stat.

Once, Twice, Three Times a Vocab Word

Well, clearly, it worked, or I wouldn't be here writing this. You don't see columns from me on how badly my lesson on figurative language went, do you? (Aside: Said lesson ended with the immortal sentence "Never mind, I will try to teach you this again later. Maybe.") Yep, my students sure did acquire new words into their vocabulary. More on that in a minute.

First, though, let me highlight how we did this. I decided that five new vocab words a week was a sufficient, but not overwhelming, challenge. I chose my words from an up-to-date SAT test prep list, trying to focus on those that I felt actually were used with some regularity. Hence, yes to fiasco, no to malevolent. (People who love the word malevolent, please do not post angry ripostes on this page! Yes, it is a good word and I like it... but I don't think it's a triage word, since I myself didn't know what it meant until well after high school.)

Next, I arranged my "Do Nows" so that the kids were interacting with the words each day of a week. (Non-teachers, "Do Nows" is a vaguely militaristic term for opening activities that students complete in the first 5 minutes of class – I privately call them the "Sit Downs and Shut Ups.") On Day 1, they got a practice multiple-choice quiz in which the words were used in a sentence and they had to select the correct meaning. Dictionaries were provided for those who chose to use them. We went over these (and I added any additional information, such as a heads-up that the word clique was indeed an exclusive group but also had negative connotation). On Day 2, they had to try to use each word in a sentence which we then went over. On Day 3, they used the words in sentences and I collected them (returning them with suggestions and clarifications the next day). Day 4, a favorite, brought "Illustrate Your Vocab Word Day," a big hit with my visual learners (and a delight for the rest of us to see how they illustrated insurgents or perplexed... some of these sketches are little masterpieces and were put up on my classroom wall). And on Day 5, they took a quiz, which required them to use each word in a sentence correctly. Every four weeks, we took a major test on all 20 words that had been covered, spending a few days beforehand reviewing the words. I also highly encouraged student-led learning, asking, for example, if anyone had a strategy for remembering how to use a particularly tricky word.

One unanticipated nice thing that happened was that most of my students could memorize five words in five days, and thus we had, for the first time, days in which every single student got an A or a B on a quiz. This was genuine learning, not coddling, and it was a big thrill for everyone when I got to call out the names of the entire class instead of just a few students as part of my Roster of Champions High Grade Announcements.

We Could Work It Out

The best part of this style of teaching vocabulary is that, without my explicit instruction, my students felt empowered to use the words they had learned. I think that this is because, instead of associating a word with a particular piece of literature (often something that they had struggled to understand), the kids were more likely to see words as tools, building blocks to use in making their own sentences and paragraphs. Plus, vocabulary words are small and easy. In a world (e.g., school) in which the questions and concepts are often big (e.g., "What are you going to do with your life?"), it must feel nice to master a bite-sized piece of information and use it.

It's worth noting that I had noticed this on a field trip. The teaching artist running a workshop with my kids had given them a script to read with the word presume in it and, when it was clear that they didn't get it, had briefly defined the word for them. Within days, the word presume came up in class several times, in a way that none of my carefully-harvested-from-literature words had. I waited to see if this phenomenon would play out again.

Almost immediately, I saw the vocabulary words begin to appear in their writing. One of the first words was ambivalent and suddenly, everyone felt ambivalent about everything – the Regents, their mom's insistence that they watch their siblings, Ms. Reed's choice of clothing. Another word was diminutive and the next thing I knew, I was being told not to bother starting a new chapter, as we only had a diminutive amount of time left in class. Vocab words appeared on Facebook pages ("U R an Insurgent! Lolz!") and in thank you notes, leaving me to have to explain to a friend who had given my kids a special workshop as to why the word cryptic appeared so often in his thank yous (and also why his show was described as "not a fiasco"). An administrator stopped by to ask if the kids had just learned the word inimitable because he had heard a group of them arguing about how to pronounce it as they walked down the hall.

We all loved this. Sure, the students' mistakes make for good faculty lounge howlers. More than that, though, the teachers and administrators thrilled to hear students enjoying learning and grappling with new information. Most of us embroiled in public school education in high-need areas have come to realize that genuine enthusiasm about learning from students is infrequently expressed. Yet here it was, bubbling through the hallways. Completely without intending to, I had hit upon something good.

More Than Just Words

Because, of course, as anyone who loves the Visual Thesaurus knows, words are never just words. They hint, coax, signify and point out. They create worlds, delineate character, evoke emotions, encourage response. They are little tools of power – who doesn't love that feeling of knowing just the right word at the right moment? Paired with our delivery, spoken words help us make ourselves clear. Written carefully, words connect us with thousands of people, most of whom we'll never know. There are times when words aren't necessary or wanted, of course. But for my students, words may be, or at least help create, their path out of a life of poverty and into a life of meaningful work and relative affluence.

Thus, I'm glad to have learned that what is the standard way of teaching is not the only way. I'll continue to teach words in literary context (we just had a vigorous conversation about the word unobtrusively, learnt from reading Our Town in class), but I'll also embrace this new-to-me, old-to-education method of words out of literary context. It's not cryptic, I don't feel ambivalent about it, and my students agree that this unit has been a zenith of our year!

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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:

Wednesday May 26th 2010, 4:46 AM
Comment by: Marta M. (Sherman Oaks, CA)
It is indeed a productive way of teaching new vocabulary words. I remember my French teacher always using this method. That is, always passing out sheets of vocabulary words which we would first pronounce, define, discuss and only then start seeing them in the upcoming literary text. We would most of the time also have a few excercised completed involving these vocablary words before we proceeded with the reading. It has always worked. Not only these words would appear in frequent queezes during the weeks but also in the test at the end which were titled as "Chapter Vocabulary." Maybe foreign language teachers have always used this method because you can not avoid the constant new word learning in these classes while in regular English courses where English is our native language we usully ignored or were just unaware of ways how to effectively teach new vocab. words. I, myself, enjoy new words and it feels like playing cool fun games or solving riddles when working with unfamiliar words. As long as we are able to pass down this feeling and fascination about words and the fun of playing around with them to our students, they will indeed surprise us! I enjoyed the article:)
Wednesday May 26th 2010, 8:32 AM
Comment by: Valerie P.
Gotta share this one!!!
Wednesday May 26th 2010, 10:20 AM
Comment by: Anonymous
Shannon, I love this article!!

I have taught vocabulary out of context (primarily for SAT prep) for many years, and have always felt it provides students added flexibility and power in use.

Learning a word "in context" always constrains the possible meanings to something appropriate (or prefigured) by the context. But so often a certain word "determines" the context. To understand what the author is trying to say, you have to come to the sentence (or passage) knowing how the word can possibly be used.

Your weekly routine of assignments - particularly the inclusion of an illustrate day - sounds really effective and manageable.
Wednesday May 26th 2010, 10:36 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I love that idea of a student's first postable achievement on a quiz. Such encouragement is bound to bear fruit.

I think I'd have turned it into a game for younger students, with points recorded for their use of the words as days passed.

With my 'reluctants' I found games effective. Anything that implied competition...

But then, no bullying or laughing at mistakes (except mine) allowed!
Wednesday May 26th 2010, 10:40 AM
Comment by: Anonymous
And, btw, the next time a student asks me, "Why do I need to know this?", I'm saying...

To "create [a] path... into a life of meaningful work and relative affluence. "
Wednesday May 26th 2010, 2:23 PM
Comment by: Pierre (The Woodlands, TX)
@ Shannon and Edward,

Words out of context are non-threatening and can be like seeds or sparks or be fun; a bit like throwing an ocean into a pebble. (sic) "Language, ... just communicating on a daily basis, I feel like I am trying to put an ocean through a straw." - Björk.

Great article and comments so far: it reminds me of this online book ...
Wednesday May 26th 2010, 2:42 PM
Comment by: Pierre (The Woodlands, TX)
To what extent did early communication incorporate signing? How much of our natural expression is body-language and manual gesturing, and how much of it is stunted today by the flood of syntax, semantics and rhetoric?
Wednesday May 26th 2010, 4:49 PM
Comment by: Shannon R. (Brooklyn, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks for the feedback, everyone! I also realized that I didn't mention that several students reported reading one of their vocab words in outside reading/other class assignments. They were very proud to say, "I read ______ and I knew what that meant!"
Wednesday May 26th 2010, 5:54 PM
Comment by: William T. (Melbourne, FL)
I am gleefully forwarding this to my teacher of the French language (not my French teacher as Mrs. Jeanne Nicolucci points out). Hope it works because, at age 88 in a class of super-seniors, we need all the help we can get. Now, where'd I leave my hearing aid?
Thursday May 27th 2010, 12:58 AM
Comment by: Scribe
As long as your approach doesn't overpopulate the world with Mr. and Mrs. Malaprops, kudos both to you and to your students! I only hope that at some point you introduce them to a dictionary of synonyms and other tools and methods for discerning the subtle distinctions between words which, in a give context, makes the use of some acceptable and of others a sign of ignorance compounded by pretentiousness.

The perpetration of linguistic howlers in certain social settings can expose a half-informed person to serious consequences. In worst-case scenarios, committing a linguistic faux pas could conceivably cost him or her a job or derail his or her career. In a high-school classroom setting, such damage is unlikely to occur, I admit, but how do you impress upon your students the importance of mastering the correct usage of a term after they've succeeded in the simpler task of memorizing its basic meaning?
Thursday May 27th 2010, 2:36 AM
Comment by: Pierre (The Woodlands, TX)
The error is with the concept "half-informed person," rather than with the person disqualified by the concept.
Thursday May 27th 2010, 8:29 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Shannon, that's fascinating and wonderful! And it leaves me hopeful that my weekly vocab lists on my blog, The Writing Resource, aren't useless for improving language skills.
Thursday May 27th 2010, 9:26 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Scribe, I think that the students Shannon is exposing to new words are unlikely to use them in situations such as you describe -- at least not too soon! The idea of these youngsters attempting those words is awesome, and the realization that they've recognized some 'impossible word' they might have glossed over earlier is equally so.

There is a natural progression here to usuage lessons, shades of meaning, all those wonderful things.

But the words are in their heads now to be studied further.

And it's the same with the words on Erin's blog... Just getting people used to them, to hearing and saying them -- that's a first step.

It will open doors to more reading, and more learning.

I'd suggest another step for the more curious sorts -- add your own word (within decency limits, of course).
Thursday May 27th 2010, 9:30 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I got involved with some students one day long ago about words of that sort, the non-decent ones. They'd been chastised by the vice-principal for 'cursing'. I asked what they'd said. I then informed them that they'd been 'abusing scatology' (my way of referring to that sort of language) which led us to a discussion of 'swearwords' and their origins.

In two languages.

It wasn't a class I remember with great fondness, but it was interesting in a way...
Thursday May 27th 2010, 2:11 PM
Comment by: Scribe
In truth, Jane, I first acquired most of my more exotic vocabulary words by looking up and memorizing definitions, and I suppose I did so because my own high school English teacher suggested we initially learn them that way. However, she also warned us about the hazards of deploying new words before gaining familiarity with their use in context. And finally, she steered us to tools we could use to sharpen our intuitions regarding their proper use--tools such as Webster's Third International Dictionary, which provided many historical examples of usage for most entries, and the massive OED, which went into even greater detail in that regard.

I'm certainly don't wish to discourage Ms. Reed from using an approach to expanding vocabulary that has proven very effective, even for me. I just wondered whether she was using it as part of a more complete process that could lead her students to full mastery of the new words while reducing their risk of committing verbal gaffes.
Thursday May 27th 2010, 5:10 PM
Comment by: Shannon R. (Brooklyn, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
It's a good question. I can't prevent my own verbal gaffes, let alone those of others, sadly. I am, after all, a person who pronounced "ethereal" as ETH-a-REAL for many years. The problem was that I had read it, not heard it. So I do try my best to make sure my kids are hearing the correct pronounciation frequently. When we go over their first sentences, I have several of them read the sentence aloud. Then we can check for slight misusages (clarifying that "assimilate" and "absorb" are not quite the same, so you can't say that the towel was very assimilated!) as well as mispronunciations (this, no doubt, led to the work on "inimitable" that my AP heard). However, I also think that part of our issue is our society-wide eagerness to shame someone for using a word incorrectly. So I also work on making my classroom a No Shame Zone. I tell the kids honestly (and repeatedly) that I still get words wrong sometimes, and that while precision in language, especially written language is a wonderful thing, that in Room 323, at least, we can play with language a bit. Hope that's clarifying!
Thursday May 27th 2010, 9:40 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Ah, Shannon, your No Shame Zone seems to set the same atmosphere as my The Stupid Question is the One Unasked, but it's shorter!

I had an early brush with vocabulary. In first grade, I wrote what I thought sister dictated, 'youse'. I must have seen the word 'use', but asked to spell it with no context, I put 'youse'. I'm ashamed that I didn't spell it 'youze' and make a case for sensible phonics at the ripe old age of 6!

My mother was appalled. "We never use that word here," she said. Quite frankly, I'd heard 'youze' quite a bit around the house.

"Youze that towel, Jane." "Youze the back door, please."

So her admonision made as much sense to me as the spanking I got when I was three and got a free ice cream cone by crossing 7 Mile Highway in Detroit to go to Don's Drug Store. No money, but I guess my smile won. I got the cone, but lost the ice cream from it when my uncle spanked me.

Frankly again, I thought it was an achievement and didn't make the connection to a need for a spanking until years later.

Admitting we've been wrong is a biggie. And kids have to know that teachers have limitations. My most obvious ones were telling time and spelling. And they willingly helped me with both.

Games, word games particularly, were high on the to do list. I called it Creative Thining, qualified for a grant with that!

Saturday May 29th 2010, 8:20 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Your wonderful column took me back in time to grade 10 when my English teacher insisted we find our own "in context" new word every single day of the week -- for the entire year. It made me CRAZY. I read voraciously and had a large vocabulary and had a hard time finding such words.

I remember scanning my parent's bookshelves, nightly, desperately looking for "new" words in sentences (we had to report the sentence in which the word was found.) Something that could have, should have, been fun was torture. If only my teacher had handed us a word a day (or allowed us to pull words from the dictionary) I would have been insanely happy. Good for you for making learning more fun for your students!
Saturday May 29th 2010, 8:31 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Fingers flying too past and I put an apostrophe in the wrong place. That should have been parents', above.
Sunday June 13th 2010, 5:29 PM
Comment by: Henryk W. (Roedovre Denmark)
Shannon, what a beautiful article - and what a beautiful attitude to students and language, both. I just wish some of my teachers had your insight and passion. But, of course, it was another place, another time.
Thursday March 28th 2013, 9:59 AM
Comment by: CharlesC. (Tallahassee, FL)
The vocabulary teaching tool used by a favorite college professor required that each student register their attendance by writing a “new” word beside their name on the “blackboard”… pause while readers born after 1960 research that last word. Each student could select a word, regardless of source, that caught their attention since the previous meeting. The professor began the class by selecting 3 to 5 words from the list and asking the contributing student to report on where they had seen the word, the specific usage, and a dictionary definition. (“The dictionary” was not accepted as a valid source.) He encouraged comments or questions from other class members or would add his own if none were offered by other students. This tool, which took less than 5 minutes of class time, elevated “teaching” of vocabulary above the status of a “spectator sport” and avoided the drudgery of rote memory. Note: The effectiveness of this teaching tool is that it required context.

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