Friday, December 31, 2010

Which comes first: the idea or the vocabulary?

Do we care more about the kids knowing vocabulary or the ideas behind the vocabulary?

When we drill vocabulary words into kids, we make the words more important than the ideas. And the best place this happens is standardized testing. You see, on these prefabricated, fill-in-the-bubble tests, vocabulary is king. If you know what the big words mean and you understand how to play the game called multiple guess, then you have astronomically improved your chances of scoring high. (Of course it helps to be affluent, too)

And this is precisely why teachers feel pressure to make damn sure their students know their subject's vocabulary words. Suddenly words like numerator, manipulating variable, verb and totalitarianism become entire lessons.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not against kids learning vocabulary. However, I am far more interested in kids understanding the ideas behind these words. The ideas behind a numerator, manipulating variable, verb and totalitarianism can be constructed from within, in interaction with their environment. However, the actual words are socially constructed, and therefore, need to be introduced to the kids.

So which comes first: the idea or the vocabulary?

I believe meaning has to come first. If you start with the vocabulary then these concepts become things the kids think they have to be told about. They come to see learning as something that has to be done to them, and in doing so, they develop an acute sense of helplessness and dependency.

To avoid this, teachers would be wise to create a learning environment where kids can play around with the essence of the vocabulary, allowing them to construct their own understanding - and then, and only then, introduce the fact that these ideas were discovered before them and they already have a fancy name.


  1. During Literature Study Circle conversations in the fall kids started to identify metaphors and we talked naturally about them as a powerful way to express ideas. One day, during a small group conversation, a grade 5 student (bright, deaf, delayed speech) was talking about a complicated idea he had (comparing Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz to the character in our novel, and how the Land of Oz was like a foster family) and another student exclaimed, "I think you're talking metaphorically!" Wow!
    So - I think the idea can be constructed during authentic conversations - along with the vocabulary when it's introduced in context.
    Great post on an important topic.

  2. At this point in my career I would agree with you. Unfortunately, though, when I began teaching I gave students a list of words we hadn't learned yet and they would go to the textbook glossary and fill in the definitions. (I also gave them title pages to create - ugh!) Students seemed to like this because of the consistent routine from unit to unit but I could never figure out why they didn't master the terms and understand them. They didn't stick! I now understand that they didn't have the the chance to make meaningful connections between their understanding and the vocabulary. What I prefer to do today is offer an experience in class and then point out what they accomplished and link the relevant vocabulary in context. My students and I have had far more success this way.

  3. I think vocab can be learned in the context of a story , literature etc - you can try to understand the word or give it mean in the context of the sentence.

    I think it is important though that kids are helped to get an accurate understanding of the word.

    From my experience with kids - english as a second language - they can read books and think they understand what the word means from the context , but often they are left with some vague meaning and cannot offer differ meanings of the word depending on their context.


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