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Why I No Longer Teach Vocabulary

Susan Notes:

Here's an smart, elegant, and powerful example of teacher-based research drawing both on research from experts in the field and work with his students. It doesn't get any better than this.

I love the way Jerry Heverly shows us how excellent teachers are always learning, both with and for students. And besides that, he's right about how people learn vocabulary.

by Jerry Heverly

The second grade was as bad as the first, only worse--they still flashed cards at you and
wouldn’t let you read or write.

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

One day last spring I was walking along the avenue that borders the north side of the University of California at Berkeley. My attention was drawn to a long, colorful splay of blue wisteria dangling from the upper floor of a two-story apartment building across the avenue. I thought to myself,That’s a
beautiful patch of wisteria on that balustrade.
That stopped me in my tracks. Where did that word, balustrade come from? What a mystery that I should "speak" a word that I didn't consciously know.

I couldn't wait to get home to see if I'd used
the word correctly. I was almost shocked to find
that I had, indeed, used it correctly.

Since my first days as an English teacher I've
been interested in how children learn words.
Numerous authors have noted the extraordinary
vocabulary growth of children. Frank Smith cites a 1978 study by Susan Carey showing that six-year-olds have mastered an average of 14,000 words "without much help from teachers" (Essays 290â€"91). How many did my students learn from me,how many from somewhere else?

Traditional Assumptions
It's one of those assumptions of the English teaching game that students must learn and store up vocabulary as a precondition of tackling literature or history or any of those fields that feature big words. How, some ask, could a child read a challenging passage if he or she didn't understand those key, usually multisyllabic, words often sprinkled throughout textbooks and literary works? Yet even in my first days of vocabulary instruction I developed troublesome doubts about my methods of
teaching words. It seemed as if my students never "got it." Many could successfully memorize dictionary definitions by the dozens, but I never had the sense that these words actually became part of the students' lexicons. Every teacher I know has a store of misunderstandings and malapropisms that they've received on word tests and during class discussions. A colleague once had a student whoâ€"
seeking a synonym for deep--offered, "I jumped
into the profound pool."

Years ago I attended a teacher training session
where a nice woman insisted that students could
not understand a passage in a history textbook
unless they already knew--in advance--90% of the
words in the passage. On the overhead projector she displayed two or three paragraphs with numerous words blacked out. She asked us to guess the meaning of the passage. No one could. I quietly seethed.

What the trainer had done was to strip the
reading process of every contextual clue that a normal reader would have at his or her disposal. A history student encountering the instructor's passage would have pictures, headings, and fonts, not to mention the teacher's words and gestures. It was hard to escape the idea that this lesson was intended
to supply a justification for the drill-and-test methods used by English teachers since the horse-and-buggy days. My doubts about what I'd been taught to do increased.

Over my first few years I struggled to contrive
strategies that would lead to real comprehension. I insisted that students use each word in a sentence. I made sure that they had at least one experience of seeing the word in context. I tried, whenever possible, to make sure the words I taught would prove useful in upcoming readings. But nothing seemed to work. Words "learned" in September would be forgotten by December. Writing assignments were often filled with misused words. Seldom did I see a
student who seemed to be expanding his or her
vocabulary because of my efforts.

I consulted an assortment of books on reading, trying to understand the process of word acquisition. Smith said that if you want a child to learn words, have him or her read. I increased the amount of reading in my typical class period. But this still left me with lingering doubts about my responsibilities. And students began to complain. "You want us to read too much!" said one student. "We read too much that it takes up most of the day's
time. We need to read less," said another. "I think you should have . . . actual English lessons; grammar, vocab," said one college-bound girl.

Then one day in the library I chanced on a research article from 1985 that got me so excited I wanted to go outside and tell everyone who walked past that I'd finally found the answer to years of questions about vocabulary development.

A New Direction
"Learning Words from Context" (Nagy, Herman,
and Anderson) offered a plausible explanation of my own--and my students'--vocabulary growth and, more importantly, supported my decision to abandon direct instruction of vocabulary in my English classes. A group of University of Illinois researchers, led by William E. Nagy, designed an elegant experiment that measured the vocabulary growth of a group of fifth graders. To gauge student word growth they didn't rely on multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank tests; they interviewed each student.

When they finished they concluded the
1. "[C]omplete learning of a word's meaning is
a gradual process" (236)
2. "[C]hildren's vocabularies contain large numbers of partially-known words" (251)
3. "[T]he impression that direct vocabulary instruction is more efficient than learning from context is an illusion" (251)

The researchers were even able to quantify the
difference between direct and incidental vocabulary growth: "If one divides the increase in number of words known by the total instruction time," they wrote, "an average of .02 words are learned per minute of [direct] instruction. In contrast . . . about .25 words were learned [simply by reading] per minute" (251). Readers learn words at more than twelve times the rate of those relying on direct instruction!

I could see my reading experience in the children studied by Nagy and his colleagues. I could see how I--and my students--gradually figured out the meanings of words as we repeatedly came across them in our everyday reading. I now had a logical explanation for what I had observed in my classroom.

I recalled my Navy days when I learned to
navigate the coastal waters of Florida at night.
We'd take a sighting to the northwest (a two-second green flashing light), then to the west (a white, constant light), then to the southwest (a flashing red light), then chart the readings on our map. Only after repeating this process a few times could I confidently use my plot to guide our ship through the waters. My students were learning vocabulary
the same way with the same uncertainties the first times through.

The Power of Reading
I still had one problem. Teachers understandably
believe they hold the keys to the kingdom--the
words one needs to woo a lover or garner that
lucrative job or write the great American novel (or read the next page of the social studies textbook). Could I argue that all this dictionary work was wrong-headed?

I got a clue to this answer when I came across
a quote from the philosopher Karl Popper in
another of Smith’s books. "Precision can only be
achieved," said Popper, "at the cost of clarity" (qtd.in Smith,Understanding
165). I began to see that my lessons were fooling students into believing that the dictionary was the end of their search for
meaning instead of the beginning.

In all my teaching I try to get students to
think. What takes more thinking than words? You
look up a word in the dictionary, you think you have it mastered--only to find that the next time you see that word it doesn't look or seem the same. Smith points out that "the thieves decided to head for the bank" means one thing when you are in a car, another thing when you are in a river (Understanding 31).
Teachers argue that they can prepare you for these confusions. And once in a while they can. But words are slippery, especially for inexperienced readers.

Sending students to the dictionary is generally a frustrating experience. They come back satisfied that they have learned a word, when I know they have only set themselves up for frustration because next time the word will not be so kind as to appear in exactly the same way with exactly the same purpose.

And so, when I'm feeling brave, I tell my colleagues that I no longer teach vocabulary. They laugh. They insist I must mean new and
better teaching of vocabulary--teaching words in context, words of interest to young readers, words that might be on the SAT, words that appear in their class-assigned reading. And, truthfully, I can hardly bear the notion of depriving my colleagues of those quiet moments in the classroom when students are diligently copying down definitions or collecting synonyms or contriving sentences using all those new terms. So far I haven't had the nerve to clarify colleagues' misunderstanding of my point.

English Journal articles are generally focused on explaining how to teach. I'm not sure how to justify an article about how not to teach. What I've tried to do in my classes is to provide as much reading as possible. I was encouraged at last year's NCTE Annual Convention where I encountered several speakers advocating that English teachers allocate large chunks of time for quiet reading of articles of interest to the students--and chosen by the students whenever possible. Donalyn Miller's The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Each Child was a notable example of a teacher who pushed reading as the primary activity of the middle school classroom.

To turn this kind of reading into standards- based learning I have found my students need three things:
1.a genuine need to know, an interest in what
they are reading;

2. contextual clues, e.g., pictures on the page,
titles, the font and layout, the table of contents, and lots of other, subtle helpers; and

3. prior knowledge of the subject--which often
means using film or the Internet or other
ways to give students enough context to
enjoy their reading.

To understand a word, it is necessary to see it in as many contexts as possible. To define a word in isolation generally means a futile trip down a blind alley. Examples, by repeated exposure, make for the best vocabulary lessons.

Reading is the key. And it is reading for enjoyment that is my way of teaching vocabulary.

Works Cited
Carey, Susan. "The Child as Word Learner."
Linguistic Theory and Psychological Reality.
Ed. M. Halle, J. Breslin, and George Miller. Cambridge: MIT, 1978. Print.

Miller, Donalyn. The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009. Print.

Nagy, William E., Patricia A. Herman, and Richard C. Anderson. "Learning Words from Context." Reading
Research Quarterly 20.2 (1985): 233â€"53. Print.

Smith, Frank. Essays into Literacy: Selected Papers and Some Afterthoughts.
Exeter: Heinemann, 1983. Print.

â€"â€"â€". Understanding Reading: A Psycholinguistic Analysis of Reading and Learning to Read.
Hillsdale: Erlbaum, 1988.

Jerry Heverly teaches English and basic computer skills at San Leandro High School in San Leandro, California.

— Jerry Heverly
English Journal


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