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.


Strategies Proven to Help Students Learn Vocabulary

Dr. Hairrell et al. performed a systematic review of
24 current vocabulary research studies. Their review concurred that several
instructional approaches and strategies have been proven to increase students’
vocabulary knowledge.  They also
determined that the National Reading Panel was correct in identifying the need
for additional research.

One of the findings was that when teachers use Semantic
, it has a strong positive affect on students’ understanding of
vocabulary.  These semantic strategies included
discussions, student-friendly definitions, word characteristics, examples and non-examples,
visuals, and graphic organizers
. Several studies (Apthorp, 2006; Fore III, Boon,
& Lowrie, 2007; Nash & Snowling, 2006) reported positive gains when
semantic strategies were part of a multicomponent vocabulary program.
Additionally, studies showed semantic instruction to be effective with students
with limited vocabulary knowledge (Apthorp, 2006) and resulted in more
“durable” knowledge (Nash & Snowling, 2006, p. 349).
know that children benefit, not only when we talk about words or define them,
but when we provide them with visuals, and show them how to link new words with
known words. When they are provided multiple contexts, and learn about the
precision of meanings through examples and non-examples, they are more
successful at “owning” the new words. For example, after a student learns the
concept of  “audacious”, we might ask, “Is
this an example or non-example of audacious, ‘The
audacious boys rode their skateboards downstairs and handrails
.’”  “How about this one? ‘The audacious parents
served their children breakfast
.’?” As students fine-tune their understanding of words, these examples/non-examples can become more subtle.  
Reference: Angela Hairrell , William Rupley & Deborah Simmons
(2011) The
State of Vocabulary Research, Literacy Research and Instruction,
50:4, 253-271, DOI:

Vocabulary Meaning Has a Dimmer Switch

How do we foster meaningful vocabulary skills in students? Deeper and broader understanding of vocabulary meaning doesn't happen all at once, according to Charlene Cobb and Camille Blachowicz in "Look Up the List" Vocabulary Instruction. Look at it like a dimmer switch where the understanding of a word's meaning will increase over time. As they learn, the light becomes brighter. They say, first, you need to "flood students with words."

Set your classroom up with word charts, puzzle books, games, dictionaries, alphabet books, etc., so that their learning environment is inundated with word meaning. Next, engage the students in word play and read daily from materials that step up the game on their vocabulary with words that are above their level. Past posts have mentioned word games we love to engage our students in active learning, such as:

  • Apples to Apples
  • Tribond for Kids
  • Taboo
  • Outburst
  • Scattegories
  • Last Word

Tell jokes and puns in class. Show them that you love learning new words, playing with the meaning of words, and figuring out why a joke is funny. Let them see you use strategies to figure out new words, so they can learn by example and develop their own strategies.

Multiple Meaning Words

"What did one math book say to the science book? Boy, do I have problems!"

There are few things funnier than listening to young children attempt to tell jokes.  They just think they are hysterical, and we go along with it--laughing at non-humor.  I had the distinct pleasure of spending time over Memorial Day weekend with almost-five year old nephews who are just three months apart. We sat around telling jokes for about 30 minutes. The older boy laughed at some of the more obvious jokes, the younger one forced himself to laugh, missing the humorous elements in all the jokes.  Both boys told their own made-up jokes to varying degrees of "success" in terms of making sense.  My favorite: "Why did the mom walk aaaall the way to the airport? (why?) She had a lightbulb in her stomach!" (burst of hysterical laughter from him, encouraging laughter from the adults.)

So what happens with these types of jokes? This nephew had learned the "format" for this basic form of joke, but lacked language precision, which is still developing at this age.  He realized he had to  tell a story, and that it needed a punchline, but he has not yet developed his awareness of multiple meaning words, which plays a large role in many puns and jokes. 

By 6 or 7, children typically realize there is a whole new world of figurative language, including multiple-meaning words.  Throughout the elementary years, students are fine-tuning their understanding that words can have nuances of meaning. For example the word "prudent" (which is in our InferCabulary2 app) can apply to a variety of "wise choice-making" such as wearing sunscreen, eating healthfully, studying etc. As they enter elementary school, student's language skills begin to explode, yet again.  Amelia Bedelia becomes funny, not because she does silly things, but because of her lack of awareness that words can mean more than one thing.

It is important to spend time helping children learn that words can mean more than one thing.  Not only is this language skill important for comprehension, but it sure makes jokes funnier!

This chart of several multiple meaning words by age was borrowed with permission from: http://www.home-speech-home.com/multiple-meaning-words.html 


Vocabulary Storage

When a student learns the meaning of a new word, the word must then be stored somewhere in the brain for future use and application.  When the word is encountered again, either in spoken or written form, the student pulls up whatever concept he/she has for the word, and applies it to the new context.
        For example, if the student learns that the word condominium means a place where people live, the word becomes neurologically linked with other words, such as house, apartment, mansion, bungalow etc. However, condominium means more than just a shelter.  There are features about a condominium that make it slightly different from an apartment, and very different from a mansion or a shack.
     When vocabulary instruction emphasizes how new words relate to the broader picture, and how the new word is different from other words that are related, the neurological storage of that new word is much more effective, making the word available to aid listening and reading comprehension as well as for retrieval during conversation or writing.

Graphic organizers are a great method for guiding students to discover the relationships among and between words that they already have, and how new words should be effectively stored.  Walking a student through this process can be very helpful since it helps them, in a visual way, lay down, or enhance the "neural network" or filing system for storing words.  For example:  

Shelters (Inspiration File)

Another graphic organizer that helps students hone their understanding of words, is the category/subcategory organizer in which circles fit inside other circles (and circles can overlap) to show hierarchical relationships.  This visual representation helps students store words in a more organized way.  Some students struggle to think flexibly about how a single word may fit into multiple subcategories.  For example, I could say "sheep" is a kind of animal, but if I say it is a farm animal, I have narrowed down the field of choices for my listener and used greater precision. In speech-language therapy, we spend a good deal of time helping students develop the framework of categories and subcategories since many students who struggle with word-retrieval lack this important skill. 
Simply providing definitions for new words is not enough for robust vocabulary instruction.  Students benefit from--and students with language disorders require--instruction that clarifies how novel words relate to stored words so that strong "neural networks" are established. Without this structured storage of words, students will lack precision in their spoken and written work, and students with word-retrieval issues will truly struggle.  Make it Visual! Make it Interactive! Make it Connected!

Getting to the Root of Word Meanings

"If you speak English, you know a little more than 100 languages." (Garg, 2011)

Learning prefixes, suffixes and root word meanings is an important aspect of vocabulary instruction. Once my least favorite method for vocabulary, but now it is one of my favorite. Many times while working on understanding the meaning of parts of words, it is very rewarding to see the "lightbulb" moment where they begin to understand words on a whole new level.

There are so many ways the parts of words can be taught that it can be mind-boggling! I like to break it down into two sections - Greek and Latin. Did you know that 50% of words have a Latin origin and 50% have a Greek origin? So, this is a great place to start.

Direct Instruction with Lists
You can find list of root words, prefixes and suffixes all over the internet. It seems daunting sometimes when you see a long, involved list. However, start with the most common words adding and deleting a variety of prefixes and suffixes to show students how to combine the information to create different meanings. Scholastic has a list of common prefixes and suffixes here.

Prefixes and Suffixes
White, Sowell and Yanagihara (1989) found that approximately 20 prefixes were used in 97% of all English words. Begin by taking the 10 most common prefixes, teach them and then work from there. The same research team also determined the frequency of suffixes.  One way is inflectional endings: nouns (-s, -es),verbs (-ed, -ing, -en), and adjectives (-er, -est). Other suffixes are -ful, -less, -tion and -ly.  Rebecca Miller, Ph.D. recommends using a Prefix Suffix Flipbook. You'll find instructions to make your own here. She suggested flip books with the example of the prefix uni- with unicycle, uniform, and unicorn like the one below:


One of the tutors I worked with introduced me to two card decks by Washington Reads, SocraTeaser and CaesarPleaser. I first use the card decks for instruction and then we play games with them, helping the students to become more proficient. CaesarPleaser focuses on the Greek origins of English words. There are three sets of cards - root words (black), prefixes (green) and suffixes (read). Students take turns choosing one of each and forming words, discussing the meaning of the parts of each word. SocraTeaser is based on the Latin origins of English. Two or more players can play a rummy type of game with SocraTeaser.
Working on parts of words can be daunting, but when students learn the "equation" of the longer words prefix + root word + suffix = target word, they can begin to understand how to break down and change word meanings. More importantly, teaching one root word, prefix or suffix opens up a whole avenue for learning that expands to multiple variations of that word and helps students decode meaning.

Vocabulary Discussion to Teach Word Meanings

     Educators and speech language pathologists are all too familiar with the myriad of activities used for teaching vocabulary, but sometimes the best way is the old-fashioned way - classroom discussion. Engaging students in active discussions about word meanings can be very rewarding.
     During classroom discussion, students can learn a great deal from their peers and add to their "experiences" about the target words. Steven Stahl's Vocabulary Development makes some good points about discussing vocabulary as a class:

Discussions can clarify misunderstandings 
Give and take discussions can help students make connections about words they partially know or only knew in one context. Making these misunderstandings public allows the instructor to "shape them into conventional meaning." Most likely, if one student misunderstands the meaning of a word, you've got several more students in your discussion that don't understand it either.

Practice and Preparation
While students are waiting to be called upon, they are able to rehearse, practice and prepare their own response for the discussion. Only one child is called to answer a question or add to the discussion, but all of the students around him are practicing what they might say and are thinking about what they know about the vocabulary word. This act of students practicing "covertly" can lead to increased vocabulary learning and a deeper and broader understanding of the word.

Using the Text
Research has shown that learning words in text improves comprehension. It's recommended teachers should chose the words for discussion that are important to the text. For example, if the class is reading Lois Lowry's Number the Stars and comes across the sentence, "Kristi dawdled just behind them or scampered ahead, never out of sight," two of the words give context into Kristi's motive or emotion. Dawdle is walking slowly, gently or powerfully, and means the character is oblivious or wasting time. Students can discuss how dawdle and scamper provide added inferential information and give insight into why Kristi is walking in such a way.

Classroom discussion or even one-on-one discussion, can provide the student with added experiences that help them recall the meaning of the word. When trying to recall what a word means while reading or taking a test, the previous discussion might trigger associations to help with word retrieval.  "Oh, yeah, I remember we talked about that in class and Jake said...." or "it was really funny when Ashley said ___ about this word."

Technology and Classroom Discussion

Finally, some schools in our area us smart board technology during classroom discussion. The instructor uses computers and tablets hooked up to a large screen that acts like a large classroom tablet. You display the app or program on the board and then teachers and students can touch the board like a tablet or phone to interact with the software. Our iPad vocabulary apps, InferCabulary and WordQuations, have been used with smart board technology and some pretty amazing discussions arose in this classroom exercise.  With InferCabulary we've heard, "No, prominent can't just mean sticking out like that tree, because you see that picture of a green eye?" WordQuations really lends itself to helping students make connections using an "equation" to determine the meaning of verb synonyms along with vine-like videos.

Low tech and high tech classroom discussions are important for students to understand new and lesser-known vocabulary words words in a deeper and broader way.

Breadth and Depth of Vocabulary Knowledge

       We have had the privilege of speaking at various conventions and meetings talking about the InferCabulary and WordQuations methods for vocabulary. In our talks we always include background in vocabulary knowledge/research and discuss how important it is for students to know vocabulary broadly and deeply.

Rebecca Silverman and Anna Hartranft discuss the dimensions of vocabulary in terms of breadth and depth in their book, Developing Vocabulary and Oral Language in Young Children
Breadth refers to "having at least surface-level knowldege" of many vocabulary words. For example, I've heard and read the word, perspicuous. I know it has something to do with the word "look," but I'm not sure I could use it correctly in writing or while speaking. This means I have a surface-level knowledge of perspicuous, but not a strong, healthy knowledge.
Depth of vocabularly refers to a "robust" or strong, healthy knowledge of a word. It involves knowing the "many different facets of words," including how it sounds (phonology), the written form (orthography), other forms of the word (morphology), it's grammatical use (syntax), meanings and how it relates to other words (semantics) and how to convey meaning to others (pragmatics). Whew! That's a lot of knowledge - deep and broad knowledge.
Having broad and deep knowledge of a word means that when children hear or read the word, they will fully understand it. This is what we need to be working towards in the classroom and in language therapy. Completing worksheets, taking quizzes, and using vocabulary words in a sentence does not always go far enough into helping our students with language-based learning difficulties tap into a deeper knowledge of vocabulary.