Vocabulary… Teaching versus Giving


Vocabulary lists. These are the things that students often hate more than anything else, and perhaps there is some justification for that. We have all been guilty of giving the dreaded list at some point in our careers. In fact, I still give a list, I just treat it differently than I did before.

When most of us were growing up, we were taught in the sit and get fashion. There was a teacher, who had work for us to do, and we generally did our best to get it done. If we were lucky, we even learned something in the process. The amount of interaction was relatively limited. In fact, often, the teacher spent time at a desk grading work while we produced it.

Now, we know that sit and get is not the best way for kids to learn. Some try to do things differently, to engage students on a different level, to get them to want to learn something new. Then there are the others… the ones who still teach the way they were taught. They teach the way they hated having to learn. I’m not sure about the logic there.

Vocabulary development is crucial. It is something that severely limits a student’s ability to read and comprehend a text. Yet, even knowing this, knowing that simply giving a list and expecting a student to look up definitions is not an effective means to learn vocabulary, many teachers still do exactly that.

Don’t misunderstand me, there is nothing wrong with giving a list of words to have kids have a basic idea of definitions before tackling a text. However, it takes more than that for a student to really understand the word.

For example, recently, a word came up in a text we were reading. The word was “Philosopher”. Not a single student in several of my classes knew the definition. Many quickly searched for a definition online, and found the definition below.

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Now, let’s be real for a minute. Most students, if given this word on a list to define, would simply copy that definition and move on to the next word. Did they learn the meaning? Do they now understand what a philosopher is? Doubtful, since the definition just says it’s a person engaged in philosophy. Now, we took the time to discuss what philosophy was, explore the idea a bit, and come up with some examples. I would like to think my students now have an idea, certainly a better idea than just copying the first definition they find.

Unfortunately, most teachers, in many subject areas, still treat vocabulary as an exercise in academic regurgitation. They put it up there, kids copy it, they puke it back out in some form or fashion every Friday for a test, all the while, still having no real clue what the word means, as the teacher never actually delved into the word itself.

While technology is a great tool, and certainly simplifies finding definitions, it is not going to teach students the real meanings of words. At least, not without someone like you taking the time to teach them to explore the words. Words are powerful, and should be treated as such. Sure, there are some great apps and sites to help students learn definitions, but I would argue that there is a difference between knowing a definition, and really understanding a word. Use the technology, such as Quizlet, to let kids memorize definitions, but take the time to make sure that students know more than just the first definition they find. Ensure they understand the word.

Words have the ability to conjure fear, emotionally support, and give power. Why would we treat something so important as flippantly as many do? As with most of education, it’s about the learning, not about the teaching. Just because you “taught” it does not mean that your students actually learned it.

Pardon me as I now step off the proverbial soap box.

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