A few years ago I played football with a very handsome young man, he was an actor and a model. On the surface his life was very simple, it basically involved being paid for being himself. He rarely got acting jobs where he was asked to do anything other than be himself, and his modelling relied on his looks and his natural athleticism. One day he was asked to attend an audition for a national soap opera; he couldn’t believe his luck. They’d head hunted him and they’d created a role for him. He couldn’t lose, or so he thought. Dressed in an expensive brand of clothing comping he’d recently modeled for he strode into the audition. It started out simple enough, “Dave (not his real name), we need to run you through a couple of bits to see how you take direction” -this, I’m reassured is fairly standard audition process. O.K he thinks, I’ve been doing this for the last ten years: light work! Then the dreaded words, “OK Dave, could you just be bashful.” He was stumped, expletives ran through his brain, but no definition and at that he froze. His reaction was nothing short of comical. He marched up and down singing ‘Heigh ho! Heigh ho’ …. “No, no,” says the director charitably, “not be Bashful, be bashful.” Next he tries, ‘bashing’ things. “Thanks Dave, that’s great” Needless to say, you’ve not heard of this friend of mine and you never will, well not through soap operas anyway. My point is simple, vocabulary is very important!
I’m going to start this blog with the assumption that you’ve picked 20 or so words that you want to teach your students this half term, and instead I’m going to focus on how best to explain these new words to your students.
It’s fair to say that memory and, how we access our students long term memory is a pretty complex process. The landscape seems to be constantly shifting and the more we learn the less simplistic it all appears to be. On a fundamental level there are some basic principles which we can focus on. Namely, timing (when we repeat information-retrieval practice) and explanation (how we present the information.) Timing is to big an issue to cover at the same time, so let me narrow down to the ‘how.’
For many years I assumed that the best way to explain a new piece of vocabulary was to present it using an unusual example. If the word was ruthless for instance, I would first give the students a definition – “Ruthless boys and girls means ‘having or showing no pity or compassion for others’ and an example of this would be….” I would then give a frankly bonkers example of being ruthless. They usually involved sharks, old ladies and mafia bosses riding elephants. “Oh! How creative and wacky I am” I would say to myself. I’m such a great teacher, they love the stories about ruthless Grandma’s attacking mafia bosses for treating the elephant cruelly.
On some level I should have been nervous about this approach. I enjoyed creating these examples and the patterns became a bit of an in joke, a form of rapport building. However, there is clearly far too much interference. The words are memorable because they are useful, everything else is white noise. The use of the same series of odd images made this even worse, there was nothing for the students to distinguish between the example for ruthless and exploit. The mafia boss had exploited the elephant…blah,blah, blah.
In their work on memory aids Einstein, MacDonald & Lackey (1989) discuss how different approaches may be more useful for different information. For example, a mnemonic which uses an exciting (and original) image may be useful (Bower, 1980) ; however, for vocabulary this images, become clustered. What is required, they suggest, is multiple exposure in the context the language is required and so I’ve adjusted my approach.
Recently, and somewhat unsuccessfully, I shared a document which I believe if we all pushed forward could revolutionise our teaching of vocabulary. My strategy now is simple, and four pronged. First I explain what the words mean, always with different examples, usually relating to their lives or texts I know they’ve previously studied, this builds on solid foundation. Next the students match the definition to the new word, I make a point of them over-learning these definitions. I’ve decided that the sweet spot is when they are bored of the task (more on that some other time.)
Next I give them cloze sentences, these are associated with the text we are studying. For example, “In his cruel and brutal beating of his native butler, Dr Roylott shows his _______________ nature.” One issue I’ve found in creating these examples is that words like ‘cruel’ and ‘brutal’ must also be understood and I always over estimate what the students can do. Once a student is comfortable with these examples I move away from the context and come up with more unique examples. It is worth mentioning that an example like, “Jose Mourinho’s treatment of Luke Shaw could be seen as ___________ ” is not a good example. Yes, the students understand this and it is relevant to many of their lives, but Donald Trump, Jose Mourinho or whoever else you care to mention will not be relevant in two decades time. In fact, Mourinho seems to be treating Shaw a little nicer these days and so the example is already dated. Your examples must be universal and so archetypal characters may be much more useful – “The stingy boss was __________ when he sacked all his staff so that he could keep his bonus.”
Your next step is to get the students to match synonyms/antonyms to the words. I would suggest doing these as a multiple choice question, for the simple reason that this gives you the chance to tease out what is different about the word ruthless compared to, say, ‘cruel’ or ‘unsympathetic.’ A great question to ask students at this point is, which word is most similar to ‘ruthless’ and why. This will clearly show you any misunderstandings the students have. Creating multiple choice questions is arduous to say the least, but you will definitely be able to use these next year and the year after, so stick with it.
Finally, and unfortunately this is the one which requires the most marking, you will need to get the students to come up with their own example of the word in a sentence. These will need to show clear understanding of the word. My personal rule is that I should not be able to ask “How was the person ‘ruthless’?” and that the word should obviously be used correctly. If you’ve given the students good enough examples they shouldn’t find this too challenging. This is the most important step, a student remembering that their teacher believes Roylott to be ruthless is not learning. It is a temporary state. It will not get them through a job interview (should the interviewer ask a question requiring the vocabulary you picked) or even enable them to analyse a spikey Portuguese football manager down the pub with their mates.
The task of making all these resources for each unit is not easy, but it is worth now “heigh ho! heigh ho! it’s off to work on our vocabulary resources we go.”
Links to my resources for this can be found here and the spreadsheet you can help add to is here.
A fantastic way of revisiting these words is to give them an image of a ‘ruthless’ looking figure and ask them to describe the figure. I’ve only just started playing with this, but the responses so far have been great. Students throw all the words they’ve learnt at the image, and then have to justify for example how the individual is ‘malevolent’ et cetera.