Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Teaching Words in Context

When Bob Greenman taught high school journalism and English in Brooklyn, NY, public schools he found himself turning to the New York Times for more than just the news. "I had the kids work on vocabulary from the paper," the 30-year veteran educator explains. "It's peerless for vocabulary acquisition, even better than reading classic fiction." That experience inspired Bob to put together a book called Words That Make a Difference, a compendium of vocabulary words with contextual examples from the New York Times, and another one he co-authored with his wife Carol, this time with examples from the Atlantic Monthly magazine. We spoke to Bob about his practical approach to teaching vocabulary.

VT: What's the benefit of looking at words in context?

Bob: It's like the difference between seeing an animal in a glass case in a museum and seeing it in the wild. It brings the word to life, it gives it a sense of place, and it makes you see that the word has a use. Studying vocabulary lists -- which I did not do with my students -- is a rote operation. Students may learn the words for a quiz, but then they forget about them. Even having students use the words in a sample sentence, which is a common assignment, is largely ineffective because they use the words incorrectly or awkwardly much of the time.

But reading a paper like the Times reinforces words continuously. You'll see a word on the front page, then the next day you'll see the same word in a Letter to the Editor or the sports page. The Times and other top publications use these words over and over.

VT: What's your approach to teaching students vocabulary?

Bob: I don't recommend working from a list of words. Teachers may feel desperate to use them because most students have deficient vocabularies, even in high school -- and you want to give them as much as possible. But I've found that if students read articles from a good newspaper like the New York Times, they will develop their vocabulary much more effectively. I advise teachers to have students read a newspaper article, or even part of an article, in class every day -- it doesn't matter what the article is, as long as the students are interested in it -- and, after they've read the article, talk about it with them and about some of the unfamiliar words in it and have them jot down a few in their notebook. You don't have to give tests all the time, either. Just by osmosis, by constantly using words, they become familiar with them.

Not too long ago I gave a talk to a group of English teachers in New York about using this approach and I referred to the newspaper as "non-fiction reading." A teacher said, "You know, I never thought of the newspapers being 'non-fiction.'" But they are. They're a nonfiction source that's not pushed very much. It may seem potentially difficult to teach from newspapers because they change every day. It's not "curriculum material" in the minds of most teachers the way most books are.

But this approach is doable. Another thing I advise teachers to do is to personalize words; that is, take a word like "surreptitious" and talk about something you did once that was surreptitious. Then ask volunteers to talk about surreptitious things they have done. After something like this, kids remember the word, even if they don't use it for awhile. Only when you read a word several times and start using it yourself does it becomes your own word. I can't imagine that the people we consider great writers learned vocabulary by studying lists of words.

VT: As you said, you have to bring words to life.

Bob: Speaking to a group of senior citizens recently, I produced little swizzle sticks from my pocket. You know, the little wooden sticks that you use to stir coffee. I told them that I took them from a Starbucks, and asked, "Were they stolen?" And they answered, "No, that's not stealing." And I said, "Well, what is it?" And someone replied, "Well, I don't know, you just lifted them." I then spoke about people who work in offices and bring home office supplies for themselves, and included the word "filch" and "pilfered." Pretty soon everybody started telling the class about something that they once pilfered or filched!

VT: They started to remember.

Bob: Right. In my classes, for the word "ostensibly" I'd say, "Did you ever tell your mother you were going to a store, and ostensibly, that's where you were going, but you weren't really going out for that reason?" When you personalize a word in that way, students' responses could take up the rest of the period. I also bring in a book titled "How To Avoid Procrastination," hold it up and tell the class "I'm a terrible procrastinator and so I bought this book. In fact I bought it 10 years ago." And I wait for it to dawn on them that the next thing I'm going to say is, I haven't read it yet.

VT: You have a whole grab bag of vocab teaching tricks!

Bob: Absolutely. I like to drop an Alka-Seltzer into a glass of water and talk about the word, "effervescence," and ask students to tell the class about someone they know who has that kind of personality. In fact, when I talked about this word in the senior citizens' class, and asked, "Does anybody know somebody with an effervescent personality?" they pointed to a man in the class who had been very lively and participating in the discussion. There are so many ways to do it.

VT: Sounds like you're having fun with words, and students respond.

Bob: Yes, yes. I think a main worry on teachers' minds is that there are so many words that kids don't know that they feel they need to give long lists. It's understandably frustrating, and it goes further than what we consider conventional SAT-type vocabulary words; it's any word that kids don't know. I had students who didn't know what a "ladle" was. They may have known what it looked like, but they didn't know the word "ladle." Another time - this was at a high school in Brooklyn - when a lot of kids didn't know what a "hedge" was, I had them go to the window and look at the apartment house across the street. They knew what a "bomber jacket" was, but they didn't know where the word came from that gave the jacket its name. I've learned that many of the words I assume are commonly known are unfamiliar to many students.

Every word expresses an idea. The more words you know, the more ideas you can generate and the more subtly, precisely and expressively you can think. "Quick," "perfunctory" and "cursory," are examples of this. You can always use the word "quick" if you don't know the others. But in the right situations "perfunctory" and "cursory," give a lot more meaning and sense to what you're trying to say.

VT: You're adding more precision to your language.

Bob: Right, and it's the thought, too. There's a world of difference between "accidental," and "inadvertent" -- each word expresses a whole different concept. This is what teachers must do in class, teach the subtlety of language.

I'm still learning words all the time. In fact, when I did each of my books, I learned some words for the first time that I felt should go into the books because I found them valuable in my own life. That's why the books are called "Words That Make a Difference." They make a difference in your expression and even in your thinking. You don't even have to write or speak the words. Just being able to use them in thinking can make a difference to you mentally and emotionally.

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Comments from our users:

Monday February 4th 2008, 3:51 AM
Comment by: Maureen A.
I am British and live in Germany now for over 40 years.I could't agree more with Bob Greenmann. I've been giving Conversation classes for a long time,and we always start by reading an article from an English Newspaper. The groups were never more than 5--6 people and they took turns in reading aloud-also very important, the spoken word has a very different impact especially if what is read is "Non-Fiction"-I like that definition very much!I have done the same with my childre, both non-fiction and fiction and in two languages, and am carrying on the tradition with my grandchild.You could call it "language-learning by speaking" and its lots of fun!And of course I love my VT-it is an enormous help. MJA
Monday February 4th 2008, 10:52 AM
Comment by: Georgia S.Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I love Bob's analogy about the virtue or learning words in context: "It's like the difference between seeing an animal in a glass case in a museum and seeing it in the wild." Good stuff.

Monday February 4th 2008, 11:03 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
The young people I taught used frequently four letter words that I didn't appreciate.

Once when someone was accused by the principal of 'swearing', I asked what he'd said. It was a four letter word, quite common (in both senses).

I suggested that he return to the principal and say he'd not sworn, but abused scatological language. He gave me that 'you are one odd person look', but did ask what he'd be saying to the principal.

So we went into that (not literally, of course) and the various words that had become swearing. We did it in French and English, and one French speaking girl was so shocked by what she learned a word meant that she 'swore' never to use it again!

Words can be such fun. I applaud Mr. Greenmann for his efforts. I'd have them read our local paper, however. There'd be more to discuss and it is a terrific paper. Sometimes the headlines are misleading. That's another lesson.
Tuesday February 5th 2008, 11:49 AM
Comment by: Thorunn S. (Reykjavik Iceland)
I am a teacher of English on the lower secondary level in Iceland. I like to help my students get a grasp of unusual (for them) words by doing translations from short newspaper articles, both from our local papers into English and from English language online newspapers into Icelandic. But I must say, I like the idea of personalizing vocabulary words in the way Mr Greenman describes.
Tuesday February 5th 2008, 1:43 PM
Comment by: David D.
I love words. I have tried to understand why this is my experience. My teachers were not particularly inspiring, but someone impressed me with his excitement about his subject matter, which happened to be geology, alas no longer an independent subject. The excitement is what caught me and I carried it to other things. Everything began to be fun. I think Mr. Greenman has this infectious excitement and conveys it to his students. Good luck for them.
Wednesday February 6th 2008, 10:47 PM
Comment by: Rev Jess
Thank you for not sharing my email address.
Thursday May 1st 2008, 7:17 AM
Comment by: Yolanthe S.
I have recently started to use the '|Apples to Apples' game as a tool for enriching vocabulary and refining pronunciation for non-native speakers here in The Netherlands. (I usually suggest people use 'Holland' rather than 'The Netherlands' which is very difficult to pronounce properly for many Dutch people
The game is great fun. While playing and laughing so everyone is relaxed and that is when learning takes place. 'Apples to Apples' is designed by 'Out of the Box'. It is a great game for people who love words and their meanings.
Saturday June 7th 2008, 4:45 AM
Comment by: Rhea D.
I'm one of those- anxious to improve vocabulary-English teachers at a high school for at risk students in Texas. What I found impressive about this article was that it improved my vocabulary. I also realized that I have stopped reading a daily newspaper. I'm going to see if our local paper would work as an inspiring vocabulary builder. We do read newspaper and magazine articles on a somewhat extended weekly basis but we do summaries, main ideas and I considered it a reading and writing exercise. We review literary terms, math terms, SAT word lists, science vocabulary, commonly misspelled word lists, commonly confused word lists, 100 most frequently used words (not profanity) and words from the literature we're reading. (Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" was an intriguing vocabulary source. Interestingly, my ELL and MR students seemed to enjoy it and its 100 plus year old perspective the most. It was fun just seeing how words have changed-"gay" is one that comes to mind.) We do the word, definition, sentence and draw a picture routine-the picture is more of a memory tool than an actual representation of the word. We'd play Scrabble more but since I'm a Scrabble addict, the students quickly learned how to keep me playing for extended periods of time. We do the boards and the projected software version. Again as an addict, it was surprising to see how many did not know the game. I also let them create and solve puzzles using Crossword Weaver. Index cards and tiny vocabulary notebooks are our other tools. I'm constantly learning and improving my vocabulary in the process. We use the online dictionary-especially for pronunciation. I use the Visual Thesaurus for inspiration and information. This is a provocative article and I hope my students will benefit from my use of Mr. Greenman's contextual approach.
Friday August 8th 2008, 4:22 PM
Comment by: Salah Q. (makkah Saudi Arabia)
i used this way 20 years ago in my learning of English ,it is effective and really peerless. In my country , a newspaper was the great source available to learn a second language at that time . I agree with Bob that teachers should try it with their students for the vocabulary acquisition .

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