Monday, September 27, 2010

You Say You Know What That Word Means? Define It.

Life, literature, school, all the major standardized exams...everything comes down to words—the words we know, the words we choose to use, the words we read, the words we remember.

I love words. I always have. I remember as a second-grader telling an older, annoying girl who was bugging me and my friends in the elementary school cafeteria that she was “ignorant.”

I can’t claim I actually knew what that word meant, precisely, but even at the age of seven, I knew it was a diss. It worked, too. The older girl was stunned silent and she never really bothered me again.

Teaching English class twenty-five-plus years later meant I got to teach vocabulary. This is fun—at least, it is for me. I believe in teaching vocab in context, not from a vocabulary workbook. That means, if the words are coming up in a particular story or novel, we study them beforehand (because honestly, no student—hardly any student, rather—will stop and look them up while reading. She or he might circle the foreign word, but as for pausing to look it up and scribble a definition down, and think about the word right then and there? Fat chance). 

Workbooks are fine and good, but I find that students more easily forget those workbook words; they need to see the words in action, and link them in their memories with a storyline for the words to truly stick.

One thing I always do when teaching vocabulary is to discuss the one apt synonym students can remember as a definition. This, I find, works wonders. After all, who can remember a paragraph-long definition in five parts, as is often seen on one of the online dictionary websites? Very few people remember those definitions; they’re neither study-friendly nor student-friendly.

Now, I understand that words can have more than one use and one meaning, but in general, there is one synonym that pretty much describes any given word.

Here’s an example: Plaintive. This word means mournful, I explained in class one day, as in “a plaintive wail.” My students looked sort of blank-faced as I defined the word and gave a quick example of how it is used. 

I felt like sighing; I had a big list of words used in Ethan Frome that I needed to get through before this class ended, and I didn't think they had quite gotten "plaintive."
            
Plaintive doesn’t sound like what it means,” I said quickly. “When I was your age, I had a hard time remembering this word…I think we need a word trick here, a way to associate this word with its definition.”

We sat quietly for a moment as I tried to think of the perfect mnemonic device (something I do sometimes) for remembering plaintive, until one of my students almost leapt from her seat. “I’ve got it!” she shouted, waving her hand wildly. “You know when you go to a bagel store and every kind of bagel you want, they don’t have, they’re all out? So you have to get a plain bagel?”


We all nodded knowingly; plain bagels are so lame.

“And then, you ask really nicely for the bagel to be toasted, but the bagel shop person gets all snotty with you and says, 'we don’t toast'—and what is that? Seriously? How can a bagel store not toast the bagels? And so you’re not only stuck with a plain bagel, but it’s also a cold, smushy bagel, and it just makes you want to go, ‘Waahh!’ That’s a plaintive wail!"
            
“That is a plaintive wail,” I agreed. “That is a perfect word trick for plaintive.”

I applauded my student. We all did. I never forgot her trick for remembering plaintive; I am sure none of us will ever forget it.
            
Any time we can associate a little story with a word, we have a far better chance of remembering it, I think. Case in point: the word nebulous. I did not recall ever seeing this word before it appeared on my PSAT exam, and when my father picked me up after the test, he asked me, predictably, “How did it go?”

“Fine,” I said. “Except for this one word I didn’t know. Nebulous. I couldn’t answer that question.”
            
“Aw, come on, Elizabeth!” my father said, smacking his steering wheel. I wondered why he was getting all worked up. “That’s easy. Nebulous. Nebulous. Just sound it out. It means…nebulous.”
            
My father didn’t know what nebulous meant, I realized. Or, maybe he thought he knew what it meant, but he couldn’t actually define it, and if you can’t define a word, even with just one other word (the apt synonym), then you don’t—as I explained years later, to my students—truly know it.

I went home after the PSAT and I looked up "nebulous." It means cloudy, hazy, unclear (pick a synonym). 
(image: the Crab Nebula...a related form of 'nebulous')

Nebulous was no longer nebulous. And because of that little story, that anecdote, I never forgot the word. 

Neither, I am pleased to report, did my students, because I always told that story to them when I first started teaching vocab, and I always told it on Back-to-School night. It was a crowd pleaser. So thanks, Dad, for not actually knowing what nebulous means. Having my parent not know something was actually very helpful!

11 comments:

  1. Can I tell you what an inspiring teacher you are, even to another teacher? I wish I could have been in your class when I was in high school!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks, Margreta. I hope you are inspired to have fun with words.

    Best,

    EC

    ReplyDelete
  3. It is sad that you will not be teaching any longer, it sounds as if you did a wonderful job. I'm glad you could find a way to spice up vocabulary for your students. It is vital, yet often forgotten.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thanks--vocab is vital, yes, on the SAT, ACT, PSAT, etc. It's all veiled vocab testing, and it all really comes back to reading, and seeing the words over and over again before they finally sink it. Making vocab study accessible and fun is very important, though. I think I accomplished that, for the most part.

    Thanks for your comment!

    Best,

    EC

    ReplyDelete
  5. This is exactly why class with you was so much fun! I will never forget your classes. Why can't everyone be as cool as you, Ms. Collins?

    ReplyDelete
  6. Am not cool (as I say it again). Any mention of "cool" made by me, ever, is sarcastic. But you are sweet to say that, and it makes this arthritic old lady feel better.

    Best,

    EC

    ReplyDelete
  7. Unless you can define it you do not know what it means? This hardly seems factually accurate, considering how knowledge is stored in the human brain.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I'm serious, but I don't mean knowing a word-for-word definition. I mean that if you can't explain at least the gist of the word, then you don't really know it--beyond knowing it's a positive or negative word, perhaps.

    Best,

    EC

    ReplyDelete
  9. To make an extreme example: What if someone knew that a word is associated with a certain qualium and has no other word for that qualium? What if someone only knew three words, blue, green and red, and knew which is associated with which qualium. He would know what the words mean, but he wouldn't be able to define them.

    Or, for a less extreme example, take someone who really, really, REALLY sucks at explaining. Someone like that could have a problem explaining the concept behind a word while knowing what the word means.

    I'd say knowing what a word means and being able to define it are two things that might be correlated but that are conceptually distinct. There might even be a double dissociation: You can define words that you do not understand (e.g. reciting some textbook) and you can understand the meaning of words that you could not define.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Okay, you're right that there are some words we know but would have a hard time explaining, such as 'fire.' I believe Madeleine L'Engle explained it quite well in "A Wrinkle in Time," but most of us know what fire is but would have a hard time explaining it to an extraterrestrial being without senses.

    Best,

    C

    ReplyDelete