"Twerking" Has Been Around for a While

Vocabulary instruction tends to be humdrum and predictable not only for students, but for teachers, as well. Recently, the Oxford Dictionary added 500 new words to it's pages. If I find this fact interesting maybe my students will, too. 

Think about inspiring your students to have some fun with vocabulary by learning new words recently added and researching why.  For instance, Miley Cyrus didn't invent the term "twerking." It dates back to the 19th century and was originally spelled "twirking." In 1820 it was considered a combination of the words "twitch" and "jerk." The Oxford Dictionary updated the spelling recently to reflect the times. 

Karen Bromley in "Nine Things Every Teacher Should Know About Words and Vocabulary Instruction," suggests that not only should students find new words added to the dictionary, but take it a step further by having them create a list of words they think should be added. Relating vocabulary to daily life, helps students develop a deeper relationship with word meaning.


Bromley, Karen. "Nine things every teacher should know about words and vocabulary instruction." Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 50.7 (2007): 528-537.

Putting Definitions in Context

 Yes, context clues are generally not an effective way
 for students to learn the meanings of words, 
but should we get rid of using context all together? 

Janet Allen in her book, Words, Words, Words (2006) asks, "Why Not Context?" She says without guidance students generally resort to two methods for learning new words: looking it up and sounding it out in a sentence (context). A single sentence usually does not have enough information for students to figure out what a word means in context, so they need new strategies.

Students learn more words on their own by reading, so they should have instruction in how to figure words out on their own. Arm them with strategies for figuring out the words in context. Using strategies to learn vocabulary is known as concept-based vocabulary and researches say that the benefits last well beyond the usual vocabulary instruction.

Strategies may include:

  • using the words in sentences to "paint a picture"
  • identifying synonyms and antonyms
  • talk about the roots, prefixes and suffixes
  • look for context clues before and after the sentence with the vocabulary word

Finally, show students how you use strategies to figure out words you don't know well. Talk through the process with them, so they can see a more efficient way to go about the process.

Visual Memory and Vocabulary

The Dual Coding Theory, originally proposed by Paivio on 1971, has inspired debate and decades of research.  This theory, described as “one of the most influential theories of cognition this
[20th] century” (Marks, 1997) attempts to explain why mental imagery is so powerful for recall of verbal information. 

Although far more complex than the scope of this blog post, Dual Coding Theory can be simply explained as two separate systems in the brain that work in tandem to lay down memory traces, and which increase the chance that a memory will be created and retrieved.  One system, the verbal memory system, lays down tracks to recall verbal information. When the language is converted to mental imagery (either intentionally and with effort, or spontaneously), the visual memory system is also then engaged.  Thus, rather than having only a single verbal memory trace laid down for the word, the visual imagery laid down an additional pathway, increasing the likelihood of recall of specific meaning. The
chance that the memory for this word will be retained and retrieved are significantly greater when it is stored in two distinct brain locations rather than in
just one location.  

For example,  if the word "prudent" is learned using a definition, but it is paired, either incidentally or intentionally with a visual image of, say, a person making a wise choice, Dual Coding Theory explains why the person is more likely to remember and retrieve the concept.

Although other theories exist, such as Common Coding Theory, The Dual Coding theory has, for decades, been subjected to vigorous criticism and to many
attempts by researchers to refute Paivio's theory without success.  According to Nigel J.T. Thomas ;,
"Paivio has continued to
develop, elaborate, and defend it, periodically reviewing the relevant
experimental literature.* http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/mental-imagery/theories-memory.html

We know that pairing the language of vocabulary with imagery helps students lay down more effective mental maps for theses words. The likelihood of recall and retrieval is also increased.

*(Paivio, 1971, 1977, 1983a, 1986, 1991a, 1995, 2007; Paivio & Begg, 1981; Sadoski & Paivio, 2001 – for less partisan reviews see Morris & Hampson, 1983; Thomas, 1987; Richardson, 1980, 1999)

Pruning Vocabulary

"One gradually learns the word’s denotations and connotations and its modes of use little by little over many, many language experiences."  

- Ed Hirsch (2003)

We know that an advanced 12th-grade student who knows 80,000 words knows each of these words with different levels of precision. She learned these words, not by learning 15 words a day, but by collecting bits of information about, and integrating together these bits in order to "own" the words.

On average, students require 10-12 exposures to a word in a variety of contexts in order to have this ownership over a "rare word" (i.e., Tier Two vocabulary.)

By providing students with a multitude of context clues about a new vocabulary term from the get-go, we posit that the time spent mastering these words will diminish, leaving the student with a deeper, broader understanding of the word, requiring only further refinements.  

For example, if a student reads, "The prudent mom brought her coupons to the store," she might infer that prudent means thoughtful, or good at planning ahead.  A month later, she might read, "Tavon prudently studied for his test." When this word is accessed, the previous assumption of what prudent means is pruned.  Now she might understand prudent to mean planning ahead to save money and to get a good grade.  Four months later, she might hear her health teacher say, "It is important to make prudent decisions about the food you eat so you do not become obese." 

With repeated exposures, the student develops a deep, broad understanding of the word and the variety of contexts in which it can be used.  

We encourage teachers and SLPs to work with students to find multiple images that represent the word. Through this discovery process, the word is explored in greater depth than if only a definition were provided. We anticipate that word meanings can be pruned and honed in far less time by approaching vocabulary learning in this manner.

We've done this with our InferCabulary app, giving students multiple exposures through photographs to help them through this discovery process.