The Vocabulary Binary: Silent Killer of Word Knowledge

I have loved learning and experimenting with new vocabulary from a very young age.  My home videos pretty frequently depict me awkwardly and intentionally fitting one of my newfound words into a somewhat contextually irrelevant sentence; I pretty much just wanted to be on film using my new word.  Because of my general interest in words, my love of varied reading, good instruction, and what I’m sure are a host of other factors, building a flexible and diverse vocabulary was never something that I intentionally focused on.  It just sort of happened.  In my experience, when something happens easily for you, you rarely know how or why it happened.  You just know it happened.

For this reason, I don’t have many explicit strategies for teaching or learning vocabulary.  I don’t have a list of tried and true activities or ideas that students can try to strengthen and develop a meaningful vocabulary.  I was never explicit or intentional about my vocabulary acquisition, so I don’t know how to teach others to be.  I do remember being in school and having worksheets that required me to look up definitions in a dictionary, copy them down, and then use them in a sentence.  I would memorize those things and then take a quiz, where I was required to fit the vocabulary word into a second, different sentence.  If I could do this, then the word was categorized as one that I knew and I could move on to a new vocabulary list.  I remember liking the vocabulary lists, because I liked new words, but I don’t ever remember any of those worksheet activities helping me to lay hold of the ability to use those vocabulary words in my day to day.  I actually remember being a little frustrated at one point, thinking, “I’m good at vocabulary!  Why am I not remembering these words?  I have the definition.  I have a sentence it goes in.  I should remember this!”  Learning vocabulary came naturally to me, except when it was framed in the very formulaic vocabulary tradition of the classroom.

Research found in the book Adolescent Literacy in the Era of the Common Core by Jacy Ippolito et. al. made some top notch points that are particularly relevant for classroom vocabulary curriculum.  The insight explored in this chapter of the book is essentially that “word knowledge is not a bimodal outcome – words are not ‘known’ or ‘unknown’.” (64)  There are several levels and intensities of knowing or not knowing a particular word.  These levels and intensities shift as we accumulate more experience with seeing, using, and understanding the word.  We need to see the word in different contexts or disciplines and use it in different ways in order to understand the nuances and subtle connotations it carries and brings to the text. Being able to regurgitate an academic definition of a vocabulary word is not really going to help anyone.  And being able to fit that single vocabulary word into an arbitrary sentence is definitely not going to result in very high levels of knowing the word.  “Only after multiple exposures and opportunities to discuss the word may we come to a semantically precise understanding of a word” (65).  In short, knowledge of vocabulary words accumulates over time as the learner builds understanding.

Expanding on the idea that vocabulary knowledge is cumulative and not bimodal, Ippolito’s book makes a related, potentially even more valuable point.  Vocabulary knowledge is not always explicit.  “Powerful vocabulary teaching does not just teach words explicitly” (81).  Knowing a word doesn’t always mean that a student can immediately spit out a dictionary definition or use it in a sentence.  Sometimes knowing a word for a student means that they understand the connotations and mood it brings to the text, they understand the sentence the word is used in, but they cannot define the word explicitly.  This type of understanding shouldn’t be undermined by labeling the word with the binary “unknown” and discounting all the knowledge that the student has acquired up to this point.

Ippolito’s book recommends fostering an awareness for this accumulated understanding of vocabulary by implementing a word scale.

“1-I’ve never heard the word before.

2-I’ve heard that word before, but I don’t know what it means.

3-I think I know it, and it has to do with…

4-I know what it means and can use it in this context.

5-I know lots about this word, including other meanings.” (80-81)

A word scale like this not only helps students pinpoint their level of knowledge and where they need to strengthen understanding, but it also values the amount of understanding they have accumulated around the word up to this point.

This attitude towards vocabulary acquisition is particularly helpful for ELL students. Instead of having them memorize definitions and sentences in an unfamiliar language, this ideology allows students to draw on contextual clues, possible cognates in their own language, and inexplicit understanding. This can be very empowering and can help endow ELL students with the courage to grapple with unfamiliar words.

Recognizing the value and importance of inexplicit knowledge of a word as well as varied levels of knowing that word has the potential to empower students to explore vocabulary, synthesize their accumulated knowledge, and make educated analyses of the words they encounter.  It situates vocabulary knowledge in the real world, as opposed to some awkward, parallel universe in which you will have to fit unfamiliar words into awkward, random sentences.  It has the potential to shift a classroom’s attitude towards vocabulary from rote, decontextualized memory exercises to complex, intellectual deciphering and learning.  It seems like an attitude one would take towards vocabulary if you wanted to look back over your vocabulary acquisition timeline and say, “I don’t actually remember how I learned all these words.  I just know them.”

4 thoughts on “The Vocabulary Binary: Silent Killer of Word Knowledge

  1. trodrigue says:

    Thank you, Danah. I learned so much from this post. Ippolito’s research is fascinating and really does have the potential to drastically transform how vocabulary is taught and learned.

    I had similar experiences as you did in school. I vividly remember taking vocabulary tests in 11th grade and staring blankly at the page thinking, why in the world do I not know these words?! I also vividly remember studying vocabulary for the GREs, using the same method I used to study for high school tests: flashcards with dictionary definitions and two examples of how the word was used in a sentence. This method was just as ineffective for me as an adult! Ippolito’s word scale seems like a great method to not only help students learn vocab but also to initiate conversation about the rhetorical nature of language.


  2. M.P. Carver says:

    Very interesting! The idea of “inexplicit knowledge” of a word makes me think about a lot of associative poetry, some of which I think of as trying to bring out those unspoken connotations, rather than the straight meaning of the word. One of my favorite poems – – I think of as working in that way. I’m glad to hear an understanding of words as more than just their meanings is being used to aid students in learning language!


  3. Megan says:

    When I first encountered it in Jacy’s class, the idea of vocabulary knowledge not as a binary but as a spectrum was nothing less than a revelation! But it makes perfect sense. Word knowledge is not an either-or.

    Since you mentioned you don’t have many strategies for teaching vocabulary outside of the definitional, I thought I’d mention a couple of others that I’ve been thinking about over the past couple of semesters. First is the contextual approach, which introduces students to either academic or Tier 2/3 vocab in the more meaningful context of reading a text. I think this is something that a lot of teachers already do. And the other approach that I did some research on last semester is the morphological approach, using linguistics to introduce students to the idea of morphemes — specifically, word roots, prefixes, and suffixes — as a way of equipping them with the linguistic tools to analyze even unknown vocabulary using morphology. I’m totally in love with this strategy for ELLs in particular, and if you’re interested I can send you a paper I wrote about it!


  4. Danah Rae says:

    It really is a powerful way to think about vocabulary acquisition. My mom is a reading specialist for younger grades, so she is very pro-the morphological approach. That being said, I don’t know a whole lot about it and would love to read your paper! Thank you!


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