Of all the complex ideas that teachers try to convey to students, vocabulary seems like a no-brainer. What’s so hard about introducing a word and its definition? Vocabulary seems like the easiest thing to automate: there are thousands of vocabulary apps on the web that purport to build vocabulary with repetition and practice. If learning new words doesn’t even require a teacher, why bother to worry about it?
It turns out that vocabulary acquisition is more complex than it appears, and that many instructional strategies fail to get students to effectively build their knowledge of new words. Let’s look at five common mistakes:
1. Choosing recognition over understanding
Standardized testing has created the impression that knowing a word is synonymous with selecting its definition from a series of choices. Outside of a school context, however, knowing a word entails being able to define it and use it.
If our goal as educators is to enable students to communicate with greater precision, we need to ensure that students can accurately use the words we teach them. They need to be able to craft sentences using the word and identify appropriate contexts for it.
Starting with recognition is fine: fill-in-the-blank, multiple choice, and matching may be good ways for students to interact initially with new words. However, in order for the words to become useful and meaningful for students, they need to use the word in original ways.
Takeaway for teachers: Challenge students to use vocabulary words, both in writing and during discussion. Ask questions that incorporate the words (“Is this character perspicacious?”) and expect that students repeat the word in their answer. Instead of having students fill out another vocabulary worksheet, ask them to write a paragraph using the new words. This will lead to deeper understanding and retention.
2. focusing on Figuring out words from context
Writers and speakers generally assume that audience understands the words they use. Because there is a tacit assumption that the word is understood, there is little incentive for the writer or speaker to use context clues or provide redundant information to help illuminate difficult words. It’s easy to determine a word’s part of speech and perhaps a ballpark of its meaning (“this is probably something bad”), but figuring out that vague gist is different from building a deep understanding of new words.
Takeaway for teachers: Rather than spending time inferring meaning from context, give students definitions of new words and help them understand the precise meaning and use. Then engage in active practice where students use the word to create original sentences.
3. Lack of repetition
There are two dominant criteria that determine whether a new piece of information sticks in long-term memory: sense and meaning (Sousa 2017). If we want students to commit a new word to memory, we need to ensure that they thoroughly understand it (sense), and that the word feels relevant to them (meaning.)
In the context of vocabulary, sense and meaning both require extended use. It's hard to make sense of a new word without seeing how it's used in multiple scenarios. For example, if a student learns the word “buttress” in the context of medieval fortifications, it is unlikely that he or she will recognize a “buttress” in a more modern context. The ability to transfer new words and know when to apply them requires more than one sample sentence.
Likewise, words that are learned for the purpose of an isolated vocabulary quiz are far less meaningful for students than words that reappear again and again. If students see that the word is being referred to on a regular basis, they are more likely to see it as useful to their everyday lives and remember it.
Takeaway for teachers: Ensure that new words are used repeatedly and frequently. When introducing a new word, be sure to generate several example sentences and ask students to create examples as well. Keep a list of words on the wall to remind yourself and your students to refer to the vocabulary you’ve learned.
4. Relying too much on synonyms and antonyms
Do “miserable” and “sad” really mean the same thing? Synonyms often have different levels of intensity and cannot be used interchangeably. The sentence “I was joyous he attended the festivity” sounds awkward, mostly because it relies on synonyms to rewrite “I was happy he came to the party.” Likewise, knowing that “heartfelt” is an antonym of “insincere” does not really help a student figure out when and how to use the word. If a student is not being insincere, should they clarify that they are being “heartfelt” when they say they turned in an assignment on time?
Takeaway for teachers: Discussing synonyms and antonyms can be useful when first introducing a word, but it’s important to clarify what makes a particular word distinct from other related words. When is it appropriate to use “horrify” versus “scare”? When is something “ingenious” rather than purely “inventive”? This level of nuance ensures that students are prepared to use the word accurately and can recognize the tone and intensity when they see or hear the word.
5. Failing to foster enthusiasm for new words
Vocabulary should not be a tedious chore that starts with a worksheet and ends with a quiz. As with any academic topic, students need motivation to learn new words. Ideally, that motivation comes through the intrinsic excitement of communicating in a new way. Students should feel proud when they use a word from the word wall or get a chuckle and a high-five when they playfully insert a new vocabulary word during discussion.
Takeaway for teachers: Create a classroom culture that encourages students to play with new words. Ring a bell when a student uses a word from the word wall. Use the new vocabulary yourself and follow up with a self-satisfied smile. Be forgiving when students misuse a new word and correct their error with humor and warmth. This will encourage them to keep putting new words into practice and help new vocabulary become meaningful and memorable.
Lemov, D., Driggs, C., & Woolway, E. (2016). Reading reconsidered: a practical guide to rigorous literacy instruction. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, a Wiley Brand.
Sousa, D. A. (2017). How the brain learns. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, a Sage Publishing Company.