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06.09.15Active Practice: The Key to Vocabulary

Slide1We’ve just finished our chapter on vocabulary in Reading Reconsidered.  In it, we describe ways to  teach new words directly (Explicit Vocabulary Instruction) and ways to increase how much word knowledge students absorb from reading words in texts (Implicit Vocabulary Instruction).  The following is from our discussion of Explicit Vocabulary Instruction and talks about the key role of Active Practice—causing students to practice applying and using a word.  We think it’s the key to improving vocabulary instruction.  We should note that much of what we write here represents adaptations of the ideas Beck, McKeown and Kucan discuss in their book Bringing Words to Life.


Explicit Vocabulary instruction includes five steps:

  1. Careful and intentional selection of high-value words
  2. Framing of a definition that students can use and apply
  3. Guidance on ‘parameters of use,’ when and how a word occurs in language
  4. Active practice—time spent using the word in different settings and applications
  5. Maintenance and reinforcement


Of these, we believe the fourth step, active practice, is the most important. This may come as a bit of a surprise: its benefits are rarely plumbed but, as Isabel Beck et al. describe, practicing using words adeptly and accurately is the key to mastery.  We learn words by using them and seeing them over and over in different settings that are rich and challenging.  So a key part of vocabulary instruction is to put students in situations where they apply their nascent knowledge of a word. If we could make one small change to super-charge vocabulary instruction across American classrooms it would be to take the time teachers spend having students guess at word meanings and replace it with time spent using those words after having been given a definition.


This would mean replacing something like, “Who can tell us what ‘destitute’ means?” with first giving students a definition for destitute—“completely without the things needed to survive”—and asking questions in which students have to apply the word and its definition: “Who can tell me a situation that might cause someone who is rich to become destitute?”  “Good, could a person ever be destitute even if they still had money?”  “How is being destitute different from being poor?” “What’s a good way to help someone who is destitute?”


In each of these cases, the teacher would insist that the students use the word “destitute” in their answer, as in, “If you were shipwrecked on an island all by yourself with a trunk of money, you’d still be destitute, even though you’d have lots of cash.”


This process of active practice makes problem-solving a key part of vocabulary instruction. It merely places the problem-solving after a basic definition has been learned instead of asking students to make tenuous guesses of a word’s meaning, which often results in a subpar definition and surface understanding of a word. This switch results in making the problem-solving more rich and rigorous than in many typical vocabulary lessons (represented in diagram 1) where teachers spend time asking students to guess at a word’s definition, sometimes from context, sometimes from previous experience: “What does destitute mean here? Has anyone heard that word before?”

The idea is that this process is more rigorous than “just” telling students what a word means because they are problem solving. In fact, however, what students are doing is not always problem-solving. More often, they are guessing and that involves relatively low rigor, potentially only a few members of class, and can result in the perpetuation of mistaken ideas which can be just as easily be the ones students remember. In the second diagram, the definition comes early, but instead of just writing it down, students are asked to use it over and over and to problem-solve with it by applying it in various new settings. Because students start with a base of knowledge, this really is problem-solving and is likely to be both more rigorous and to result in greater mastery of the word because it results in students using and saying the word multiple times.


Again, time spent guessing a word’s meaning is far less productive than time spent using and applying the word’s meaning in increasingly complex situations, but the former tends to dominate what teachers do with new words. For example, consider whether it is more rigorous to have students answer the question, “What do you think clandestine might mean?” or something like, “How is clandestine similar to and different from surreptitious?” or “How could camouflage help you do something in a clandestine manner?  Could you use blaring noise to help you do something in a clandestine manner?  How?”


Active Practice to Master Meaning


Mastering meaning involves students using a word to illustrate its degree of meaning with fluidity, expertise, and a depth of understanding.  There are four different ways you could ask students to practice mastering meaning and they should be done both verbally and in writing:


  1. When a word would (and would not) apply. “Would it be accurate to say that Aunt Alexandra is acting like a tyrant in this scene? Explain.”
  2. Combining multiple new words: “Could a tyrant ever be humble? Tell me why or why not.”   
  3. Narrate the story:  “Can a group ever exert tyranny over another group? How? Explain how a group of people in To Kill a Mockingbird make decisions that are tyrannical?”
  4. Define a change: “How would it sound different if Scout said that Aunt Alexandra’s opinion was “indirectly stated” rather than “obliquely observed”? How is it different to state that Aunt Alexandra is being tyrannical as opposed to say ‘bossy”?


Active Practice to Master Usage


Asking students to practice correctly avoids students misapplying words incorrectly. It’s much harder to unlearn bad habits than it is to build new ones, so it’s a good idea to have students practicing a variety of uses. There are two ways to do this:

  1. Change the form: “In its adjective form we would say ‘tyrannical.’ Would Atticus agree that Aunt Alexandra is tyrannical?
  2. Create a sentence with the word and/or other parameters: “Write a sentence in which you describe Aunt Alexandra looking ‘obliquely’ at Scout. Be sure to describe what Scout has done to earn such a glance.”

It’s quite a common practice to ask students to create sentences with new words, but you’ll notice in the example above, that adding additional parameters adds rigor and helps to ensure that students are using a word correctly.

 Three Keys to Active Practice


Practicing incorrectly can sometimes do more harm than not practicing at all. When practicing, be sure that students are accurately applying the word. It is not uncommon for an eager student to lose the meaning of a word in his/her earnest attempts to apply the word wherever the definition seems to fit. Whether it’s active practice to master meaning or usage, there are three important keys to getting the most out of it.  The first is that you want to ensure that students actually use the new word in their answers (you would be surprised by how often we forget this!). What happens instead of using a new word is that student will use a sentence that describes a word instead.  For example, if a teacher asks a student to describe a time when they are sentimental, the student might start the sentence without using the word, “when I look at photo albums of my baby brother when he was little” – while that may demonstrate the meaning and accurate use of the word, unless the teacher pauses the student to revise their answer and use the word in their sentence, then the student doesn’t actually get practice with the word.


The second key to successful active practice is that you want students’ answers to illustrate their understanding of the word. We often hear students say something like “I detest broccoli.” Without further explanation, it’s not clear if they truly know what it means to “detest.” In this case, we want to push students a bit further to expand their sentences to illustrate the meaning of the word, as in “I detest broccoli because it’s bitter and doesn’t taste good.” Avoid questions that are mundane or obvious in order to ensure that students have to rigorously apply a word and its definition.  The result of simple fill in the blank questions, or only asking questions that ask students to use the word to describe their own experiences can have two negative outcomes.  The degree of the word may not match the context (e.g. “I was irate when my sister got ice cream before I did.”) because they match a simple fill-in-the blank formula or they may generate a surface level of understanding about a word (e.g., “I adore my teddy bear.”) without understanding its deeper meanings or connotations. Provide prompts that support students precise use of the word (e.g., “Write a sentence about why a mouse would likely despise a snake.” versus “Write a sentence using despise.”) or in which they combine similar words with slightly different meanings (e.g., “Write a sentence in which you describe something you dislike and something you detest.  Use ‘despise’ and ‘detest’ in your answer and illustrate how their meanings are slightly different.”) Asking these rigorous application questions increases the quality of their practice as well as deepens their understanding of the word and its definition.

The final key is that we also want to ask students to use different forms of the word so that they are able to practice using a word flexibly and deeply, and to consistently correct inaccurate part of speech or tense in their answers so that they are practicing using the word in its correct forms.  Do not accept for example, “The pond was scarce of water.”  If we accept incorrect forms of new vocabulary words during practice then students will most assuredly make those mistakes beyond the classroom.  Following these three keys of active practice can support teachers in asking students to rigorously apply their burgeoning vocabulary, and they are useful in giving feedback to students on their practice as they use new words and apply their meanings in a variety of contexts.

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3 Responses to “Active Practice: The Key to Vocabulary”

  1. Ray
    June 10, 2015 at 3:16 pm

    Obviously, beginning a vocabulary lesson by asking “Who knows what ___ means?” is not a good use of time. But I would argue that giving an example of the word in context and having the students infer the meaning offers some advantages over simply giving a definition. First, it’s more rigorous that simply listening to a given definition. I understand the idea that you want teachers to follow the definition with more rigorous activities, but the entire vocabulary lesson should be rigorous. Also, it’s more typical of what happens in real vocabulary acquisition. We learn most of our vocabulary from context. When students learn how to use context to help them understand a word’s meaning, this is a skill that will help them learn words beyond the relatively few that are explicitly taught in the classroom. There is a strong research base suggesting that teaching students to infer from context is more effective than simply giving definitions.

    This brings me to a concern that I have with your books. I love them. I read them and recommend them to others. But you never make use of the research that’s out there. Everything is anecdotes. Your books are great, but they could be even better if you would back up your opinions with research.

  2. Rhonda
    August 1, 2015 at 5:26 am

    I do appreciate and benefit when supporting research is cited.

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