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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 05/27/2010

Vocabulary twist: Teaching words OUT of context

By Valerie Strauss

Kids (and adults) are supposed to learn new vocabulary best when words are presented in literary context.

Well, a teacher at the public Brooklyn Theatre Arts High School has discovered that sometimes, teaching words out of context is just as successful.

Shannon Reed, who is also a playwright, writes in the “Teachers at Work” blog at about an experiment she tried at her school, where a majority of the students come from low-income families.

Traditional vocabulary instruction calls for teachers to present words to students in literary context so they can extract meaning from the other words around them. Kids read a literary work and then study words in the narrative. This words especially well for kids who like to read.

But, as Reed points out, a lot of students don’t: “One reason I’ve frequently heard to explain why they don’t read is that it’s dull or hard. Yep, come to think of it, repeatedly running your eyes over a bunch of words you don’t understand is indeed dull. And hard.”

While trying to find engaging ways of teaching vocabulary words, she decided to twist traditional vocabulary lessons. She wrote:

“I wondered what it would be like to switch the the process – instead of reading something with my students and pulling out the vocabulary words from it, what if I chose some higher-level vocabulary words, teach them, and let them discover the same words while reading? Although I did fear that somehow word would leak out to one of my education professors, who would no doubt swing by my school for a little hand-slapping, I decided it was worth a shot. Especially when no one could come up with a reason not to, and statistics were showing that our students needed some kind of intervention in academic vocabulary, stat.”

Here’s what she did:

“I decided that five new vocab words a week was a sufficient, but not overwhelming, challenge. I chose my words from an up-to-date SAT test prep list, trying to focus on those that I felt actually were used with some regularity. Hence, yes to 'fiasco,' no to 'malevolent'.....

“On Day 1, they got a practice multiple-choice quiz in which the words were used in a sentence and they had to select the correct meaning. Dictionaries were provided for those who chose to use them. We went over these (and I added any additional information, such as a heads-up that the word ‘clique’ was indeed an exclusive group but also had negative connotation).

"On Day 2, they had to try to use each word in a sentence which we then went over. On Day 3, they used the words in sentences and I collected them (returning them with suggestions and clarifications the next day). Day 4, a favorite, brought "Illustrate Your Vocab Word Day," a big hit with my visual learners (and a delight for the rest of us to see how they illustrated insurgents or perplexed... some of these sketches are little masterpieces and were put up on my classroom wall). And on Day 5, they took a quiz, which required them to use each word in a sentence correctly.

"Every four weeks, we took a major test on all 20 words that had been covered, spending a few days beforehand reviewing the words. I also highly encouraged student-led learning, asking, for example, if anyone had a strategy for remembering how to use a particularly tricky word....

“Almost immediately, I saw the vocabulary words begin to appear in their writing. One of the first words was 'ambivalent' and suddenly, everyone felt ambivalent about everything – the Regents, their mom’s insistence that they watch their siblings, Ms. Reed’s choice of clothing.

Another word was 'diminutive' and the next thing I knew, I was being told not to bother starting a new chapter, as we only had a diminutive amount of time left in class. Vocab words appeared on Facebook pages ("U R an Insurgent! Lolz!") and in thank you notes, leaving me to have to explain to a friend who had given my kids a special workshop as to why the word ‘cryptic’ appeared so often in his thank yous (and also why his show was described as "not a fiasco").

"An administrator stopped by to ask if the kids had just learned the word ‘inimitable’ because he had heard a group of them arguing about how to pronounce it as they walked down the hall....”

And Reed concludes:

“I’ll continue to teach words in literary context (we just had a vigorous conversation about the word unobtrusively, learnt from reading Our Town in class), but I’ll also embrace this new-to-me, old-to-education method of words out of literary context. It’s not cryptic, I don’t feel ambivalent about it, and my students agree that this unit has been a zenith of our year!”

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By Valerie Strauss  | May 27, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Learning, Reading, Writing  | Tags:  how to teach vocabulary, how to teach words, literary context, teaching vocabulary words, teaching words in literary context, vocabulary lessons  
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Holy crap -- I didn't realize schools don't do this any more! I learned SO much from my 8th grade English teacher, who did something very similar.

Picking things up in context is useful, because it can give you a general sense of the meaning of the word. But it can't always give you the nuance; sometimes, you pick up a fuzzy sense of the meaning, without really understanding it. I was really embarrassed when my husband asked me what a particular word meant -- it was a word I read All The Time; I have always assumed I understood it, but I couldn't explain it to him. And I'm one of those former-English-major, love-reading, write-all-the-time people! Yet to this day, I can still clearly explain words like "dearth" and "plethora" that I learned 30 years ago in 8th grade vocab.

Posted by: laura33 | May 27, 2010 8:30 AM | Report abuse

How is this NOT learning them in context? I assumed that not using the context involved the old "spelling list" idea, where we had 20 words a week and had to memorize the spellings and maybe never saw them again. She is teaching the word first and then the context, but they are clearly encountering the context on day one in the sentences.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | May 27, 2010 8:47 AM | Report abuse

Sideswithtehkids, in the education world, teaching in context requires that all the words be connected to each other in some way, either by topic or the text they come from. If you're providing a word, then providing a context in which we use the word, that's still considered teaching the word "out of context," and is a no-no.

Similarly, it's frowned upon when I decide to teach the conditional tense in grammar, on my own. Sure, I provide plenty of context for using the tense, but it's supposed to come from a text that we've read, so that students can find it in the text, and we can then talk about how it's used. The main problem with this is that it's impossible to teach grammar just based on a text, and still provide plenty of practice. On the other hand, if your focus is the text and not the grammar, then taking more than a few moments away from the text to explain the grammar can be a distraction, whereby everyone's forgotten what they're reading and what's happening in the text. The same thing happens if you have to spend too much time discussing each and every vocab word that you find in your reading.

Posted by: LadybugLa | May 27, 2010 11:06 AM | Report abuse

LadyBugLa has perfectly explained what I meant. Thanks, and thanks to Valerie Strauss for excerpting my article. If interested, you can ready many more of my columns at, and at my blog,!

Posted by: sreed151 | May 27, 2010 11:22 AM | Report abuse

As a high school sophomore, I took the NMSQT for practice and received the designation "Semi-Finalist." The area in which I was weakest was vocabulary. The following year, my English teachers used the same method as Ms. Reed to teach us the meaning and usage of "hard" words like those found on the SAT. (I still remember learning that "poultice" had nothing to do with poultry.) When I again took the NMSQT, my score had sufficiently increased to qualify me as a National Merit Scholar and I won a four-year sponsored scholarship.

By the way, the teaching method that assumes that students can learn (guess?) a word's meaning just by reading it in a sentence sounds an awful lot like the "whole language" method of teaching spelling.

Posted by: rei727887 | May 27, 2010 2:13 PM | Report abuse

rei, I think you're right. It basically comes down to everyone being afraid that straight teaching and asking kids to memorize stuff is boring, and therefore should be avoided. Of course learning should be applied, but if you don't LEARN something first, there's nothing TO apply.

I suspect that there are many more students like you who would benefit from more of the direct instruction that is now discouraged. Teachers are told to be "the guide on the side, not the sage on the stage," and that means letting students work together to figure stuff out, rather than teaching them directly and telling them to memorize anything.

Posted by: LadybugLa | May 27, 2010 2:56 PM | Report abuse

One thing I've always been curious about is why we don't teach vocabulary in sets of synonyms. Dictionaries usually provide this for many words. That way students would learn the nuances of words, shades of meaning and connotations along with denotations.

Just a thought.

Posted by: zoniedude | May 27, 2010 4:33 PM | Report abuse

LadybugLa:Thanks for the explanation.

Incidentally, your account of teaching the conditional tense reminds me of my high school English teacher. She complained that it was bad enough to say "if I would have" instead of "if I had," but to make it worse the entire geographic area said "if I woulda"! (I still do, despite my best efforts, but then, I also say "yah" instead of "yes" because my mother grew up with German-speaking aunts and uncles. Some habits just never die.)

Posted by: sideswiththekids | May 27, 2010 5:38 PM | Report abuse

Sideswiththekids, LOL I loved your story. I actually teach English as a Second Language, so teaching the conditional was really vital. It's a tense that those students all struggle with, and I've never met a student who just "picked it up naturally." Since it's a tense we use all the time (correctly or not!), I couldn't justify releasing kids from my program without having introduced them to it. Sadly, I think most kids ARE released from ESL without learning it, mostly because we think it's too hard in the beginning, and then we release the kids as soon as they get close to being advanced speakers - that is, as soon as they're ready to learn the really hard stuff.

Posted by: LadybugLa | May 27, 2010 8:45 PM | Report abuse

Zoniedude, I think that would be an interesting idea to try, but I'm afraid a lot of kids would get confused by all the nuance. If we're teaching maybe two synonyms at a time, that would probably work, but if you have a list of five or six words with similar meanings, you're likely to just figure that "all of these kind of mean __________," but still not grasp the specific meanings and usage. I think that's where teaching in context really IS helpful, because the more times you come across a word being used in a certain way, the better you understand it.

Posted by: LadybugLa | May 27, 2010 8:53 PM | Report abuse

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