Friday, December 1, 2006

Rethinking Vocabulary Instruction

So, I just turned in the last research paper of my undergraduate career (I hope). I'm one of those sick people who like writing papers about things. This particular paper was for linguistics and was about vocabulary instruction.

I don't know what it is about me and teaching vocabulary, but I'm really psyched about it. I think part of it may have been that I was forced to copy definitions from dictionaries, and now that I know there are better ways to do it, I'm so ready to stick it to the man! Not that there's anything wrong with dictionaries - they're a great tool for the right jobs, but learning vocabulary isn't one of them.

At least, that's what I argue, and what the limited research I've read says. The studies I looked at basically tested three different types of vocabulary instruction:

1. Definition-based instruction. Usually consists of a list of words that students look up and write down the definitions to on Monday. For homework they study them. On Friday, they take a test.

2. Using context as a clue. Students read sentences and paragraphs that contain a target word and infer the meaning from what they can figure out from the surrounding material.

3. Semantic mapping methods. New words are linked with simpler words already in a student's mental lexicon. Psycholinguistic find that words are connected in a giant mental web in four ways - groups of words on the same level (like salt, pepper, mustard, antonyms fall in this category as well); words that often go together (like salt and water, butterfly and net); words that are part of a group signified by another word (like salt and spices, or robin and bird); and finally synonyms (like hungry and starving). These four have big complicated titles, but who really wants to know those, anyway?

So basically, the research shows that definition-based instruction doesn't work well in the short run, and there's definitely little to none retention. Context works when students are really, really great readers, what Kylene Beers called "independent readers." Otherwise, it's not so hot. But semantic mapping methods seem to work really well.

Now, I would argue, that doesn't mean that we shouldn't teach students how to use dictionaries and how to figure out unknown words from context clues. That is what will bring them independence after all, and context is how students pick up on the 2,000 to 3,000 words they learn each year.

But, I would suggest, that when we do teach vocabulary, we should teach either subject specific vocabulary, or we should be focusing on one book that has particularly hard vocabulary, and not just words we think students might use someday. And when we teach it, we should link it in some way to words they're already familiar with. Then the words will get assimilated into the mental lexicon, and students will actually, possibly, start to use them in their speaking and writing.

Here comes the twister - are you ready (if you read this far into this post, I'm really impressed. Everyone else fell asleep.) Students who choose their own vocabulary words from their reading (keeping some sort of reading journal or "new words" chart) also learn vocabulary better. It's the old "invested in learning" trickero. So if we had students who used word charts AND used semantic mapping, imagine the possibilities!

So now I need to integrate this into what I did in my student teaching last semester. I did have students use a vocabulary chart where they picked up new words each week. Then I ruined everything by having them put it into a wiki that was organized by letter. What was I thinking? I wasn't. I know, it's heartbreaking. Silly Ben.

And I was thinking today, maybe it could be organized like a web, so that it would be a collective mental lexicon of the classes. That sounds cool, but I don't know what purpose it would fulfill. I mean, maybe if the students could start linking all these different words together, it would be like a semantic mapping method, but it also might just be a model of semantic mapping, and students might not get anything from it.

But, my hunches tell me there's some way to use a wiki along with this. I'm going to do some thinking about this, and if any of you have some ideas, please leave a comment.


  1. Hi Ben,

    I'm not sure you ruined it by having kids post them alphabetically. Our mind recalls words by initial sound, in addition to semantic relationships, et. al.

    I use A to Z taxonomies (evelyn rothstein "writing as learning") to have students chart their vocab words (self-selected usually) alphabetically, but all related to one particular concept or topic.
    I feel like it provides the semantic linking while also helping them file the words away by initial sound, something they'll be doing anyway.

  2. Very cool post. Strikes me that vocabulary can be taught using naturalistic intelligence (categorization and classification based on common characteristics). I'm definitely going to use this as I present science vocab this year in sixth grade.


  3. Good stuff on semantic mapping-that is the "deep vocabulary instruction" that researchers like Beck have always advocated. Re: context clues... True enough that these are not always end-all strategies to vocabulary acquisition; however, I do believe that learning and practicing such strategies can help.

    Beyond the "deep vocabulary instruction," we really get most of our word bank from widespread reading. I break down the research and practice on this on two blogs: and