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What’s the Word? Using Context to Teach New Vocabulary

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

As I walked behind a mother and her young daughter at the gym the other day, I eavesdropped on their conversation:

Mom: “That costume won’t fit because you are not broad enough.”

Daughter (after a pause): “Mama, what does broad mean?”

Mom: “Ah! Broad means wide. Your shoulders aren’t wide enough, and the costume would slip off.”

Daughter: “Ohhh!”

I had to smile at this example not only of language learning in a natural setting, but of the Vygotskian concept of learning in a social context. Vygotsky described the practice of scaffolding–providing just the right amount of support needed with the goal of eliminating the need for assistance in the future. (Yes, educational psychologists can turn even randomly overheard conversations into a nerd-sesh.)

It also brought me back to learning new words from my own mother. A stay-at-home housewife in the 1960’s, she read voraciously. As she held a chunky book in one hand, I would cuddle up under her other arm that held the cigarette she always smoked (!) while reading. She subscribed to the morning and evening editions of the local paper, and she read them cover-to-cover every day.

My mother also had a practice of sprinkling advanced words into a sentence of familiar ones. Then, she would talk about the new word, rolling it over on her tongue. She would share her favorite words or make note of ones that were musical to the ear. Mulling over words with her children was one of my mother’s love languages.

To be sure, some of our students also experienced such a language apprenticeship in their growing years. However, many of our students have not. In addition, we have a number of students for whom English is not their first language. Add to this group our students with developmental learning needs, and a more intentional strategy for teaching college-level conversational vocabulary is needed. One way to accomplish this is through embedding new words in context.

Language Learning in a Social Context

So how does this work? One method for introducing new words is through our online course announcements. Some research puts the average reading level of newspaper articles at 11th grade, but in my announcements, I strive for a level more akin to romance novels. (The actual average reading level of my online announcements is 7th grade.)

My announcements are written in plain language in order to reach all students. However, within the scaffolding of familiar language, an advanced word or two can be inserted in context. If most of the words in the announcement are easily comprehensible, students can play with the odd word they don’t recognize.

Here is an example of how the potentially unfamiliar word “pivotal,” can be included in a sentence.

This is a pivotal week in our study of statistics, and so I encourage you to pay special attention to the videos and readings in this module.

Although this sentence will not teach students the nuances of the word, they will understand that pivotal means important.

English-language learners can struggle with idioms—a group of words that are only meaningful through their common use in a culture. For example, spot the idiom used in context in the following course announcement:

It all goes together like peas and carrots, and I hope you will find this week is much like last week.

Forrest Gump fans and native English speakers understand the idiom. But those unfamiliar with the pairing of these vegetables in verse will be able to figure out the phrase in context.

Our in-person instruction is perhaps the richest arena for presenting new words in context. My statistics students routinely have difficulty understanding the term “null hypothesis.” One strategy I use is to rephrase difficult terms in various ways:

Me: We reject the null hypothesis.

My students: (blank stare)

Me (following up): We reject the idea that the groups are equal. The groups are not equal.

Using new vocabulary in context and elaborating on their definitions in conversation is like hiding broccoli in a piece of pie. Students are unaware of the process but their vocabulary grows all the same.

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