Friday, August 10, 2012

ACL Institute: Acquiring Vocabulary

Acquiring Vocabulary: It's More Than Just Flashcards
by Keith Toda

Keith already wrote a great guest post for us earlier in the year, so you may already be at least somewhat familiar with him.  He is doing great things in the world of spoken Latin instruction and I always attend his presentations because I know they are going to be valuable.

Acquiring Vocabulary
Keith emphasized the term "acquiring."  Too often students live and survive class via "cramming and flushing" information.  We know this.  There is not one person reading this blog who has not sat the day/hour/minute before class quickly jamming as much information in his or her head as could possibly fit just long enough to empty it all out onto a piece of paper and get a grade.  Then the information is lost, with only an echo remaining to reflect the fact it ever was there.  Ask me about the state capitols.  I can name five.  But I got 100% on my test in 4th grade because I am one of the most skilled people you have ever met when it comes to cramming and flushing information.

Which is why it's important to try to help your students acquire vocabulary instead of cram it.  Acquired vocabulary should stay with your students--they should be able to recall it days/weeks/months later when they need to read some Latin.  How often are your students flipping through the book, asking a student, or asking you for the meaning of a word?  Some students need help on nearly every word.  Sometimes these are the same students who have somehow earned 100% on every quiz they've taken, yet they can't read a five-word-sentence without looking up four of the words.

Of course, then we come to the point of the presentation.  How do you teach vocabulary in such a way that students are given a chance to acquire the language?

Vocabulary Experiment
Keith cited some research that addresses this problem. In her book, When Kids Can't Read, What Teachers Can Do, author Kylene Beers describes an experiment which she conducted with some middle-school Language Arts teachers.  The teachers were required to teach certain vocabulary words, 20 words per week, and students were quizzed over those vocabulary words.

The teachers made a plan: first, the teachers themselves were required to learn the 20 words.  Second, two weeks before the quiz, the teachers would have to incorporate the words into their daily speech and discussions with students to help the kids become accustomed to the words in context.  Lastly, the week before the quiz itself, the students were given the list of 20 words to study.  The idea was that by the time the students would see the actual list of words, they would already be familiar with them.

The results, however, were not great.  Several things contributed: the teachers themselves were simply unable to learn the list of words beforehand.  The sheer number of words was overwhelming to not only the students but the teachers who were being expected to learn and use them.  The words were impossible to keep track of--the teachers could not make sure they were using them in context enough to make them meaningful to the students.  In addition, the words were so unrelated, it was difficult to use them in the same sentences or even conversations.

Because of this, the teachers reassessed their approach and made some changes.

  1. The teachers narrowed the lists to ten words each.
  2. They chose words that worked together.
These changes are simple but they paved the way for the teachers to learn the words, use them effectively in class before the words were assigned, and of course fewer words made them accessible to the students.

The result was simple.  The students' scores improved.

In addition, and much more to the point, the students' use of the words in speech and writing improved. 

And that's the point of studying vocabulary words in the first place.

This all went to prove something many researchers have been saying for years.  In order to be effective, vocabulary instruction needs to be meaningful, contextual, and full of repetitions.

So why do we need more than flashcards?

Flashcards are a commonly recommended method for learning vocabulary.  However, they have a few faults:

  • Flashcards really only work for certain types of learners.  There are all kinds of learners, whether or not you subscribe to Gardner's theory, and some students really get almost no benefit from flashcards.
  • The words themselves are isolated and out of context.  This really matters.  Recognizing a word isolated, on a piece of paper, and connecting it with an English meaning is completely different from reading a word in a sentence and understanding its meaning without resorting to English or getting the feel of the word in that particular context.
Other options for learning vocabulary

Total Physical Response is not a new concept anymore.  The idea behind TPR is that students attach a movement, a physical action, to a word and through modeling, repetition, and teacher leadership learn to think of the word in the language they are learning.  And, with the right teacher, it can be extremely fun.

Keith had an unusual experience in the last school year that helped him see great value in TPR.  Due to a book shortage in the district, he had to wait for three weeks before his first-year Latin students got books.  Facing this situation, he decided it was the perfect opportunity (excuse?) to do a really intensive TPR-based introduction to the Latin language.

To his surprise, the experience was not only fun for his students, it was fun for him as well.  He felt freedom instead of pressure.  And when they finally received their texts, the students were more than prepared to breeze through the three chapters they hadn't been able to begin until that moment.

Of course, Keith did not exclusively TPR with his students the whole time.  One of the shortages of purely learning a language via TPR is that you really can't work on non-concrete concepts.  To deal with words that are not literal, Keith also incorporated a few other methods, such as storytelling and question and answer sessions.

Picture Flashcards
Keith has also created flashcards to help his students visualize Latin words.  You can scroll through the flashcards starting at slide 13 in the PowerPoint above.  He emphasized the need for the flashcards to be "obvious"--meaning they can't be mistaken for some meaning other than the one you intend.

The point of the flashcards is similar to the point of TPR--connecting Latin language to concepts rather than English.  The less time students spend "translating" a language, the more time they have free to think in Latin.  Some of his flashcards help guide students in attaching meaning: they ask simple either/or questions.  Is this a boy or a girl?  Is it one dog or many dogs?  That allows students to look at the picture, think about the Latin question, and answer without resorting to translation into English.

Where Are Your Keys
The last vocabulary teaching method Keith brought up in his presentation is Where Are Your Keys--or WAYK--which is a system both I and Miriam have blogged about ourselves (here, here, here, here, and here) so I won't add yet another description in this post.  Unfortunately, due to time constraints, Keith did not have a chance to present very much over WAYK.  Perhaps next year he can present a session over that by itself (hint)?

Finally, Keith's presentation was about thinking outside the box.  Moving beyond the way we learned vocabulary ourselves and finding a way of offering vocabulary to our students that is more effective and efficient.  Helping students acquire vocabulary rather than temporarily memorizing it.  

Making vocabulary and language-learning fun.


  1. No problem! Not everyone can go, so this helps everyone at least get to learn what I got to learn :)