Choosing Effective Vocabulary

Overview: In general, the project here is to explore the most effective vocabulary to teach students in attempt to maximize academic, social, and emotional learning.  Our vocabulary lists determine not only the content of the respective course, but also the  transferability and applicability of the curriculum to the wider world, including concurrent and future classes. This page sketches out a loose method for determining which vocabulary will yield the best results.
A Simple Method: Despite the importance of vocabulary, in many English classes, students often receive seemingly random and de-contextualized word lists to memorize. Sometime these lists are the “hard words” pulled from texts the students are reading, so the context is provided, but there is little reason to assume that any random, new word will contribute significantly to student learning. The same issue arises in Science and history class though it is less likely that the words chosen will be truly random. To maximize our impact, teachers must determine which terms will contribute the most to the student understanding. There is a great deal of room for debate, largely because we lack a common vocabulary to determine the value or saliency of words, terms, and concepts. If the project then is to determine what to teach students during our finite time with them, we can develop a rubric of some sort to pick terms that have the highest long-term value. A scale might look something like this:

Contextual Usage +1
The word plays an important role in a text, unit, lab, etc. For example, chifferobe in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Linguistic Transferability + 1
The prefix, root(s), and/or suffix allow for a deeper understanding of a large group of words, e.g. magnanimous or bioluminescence.

Sophisticated Usage + 1
This word won’t show up a lot in their lives, but knowing it will distinguish them as educated people. Many SAT words fall into this category.

Common Usage + 2
Students don’t know this word now, but they will hear it more frequently once they enter the wider world. This might be discipline specific, so if something is commonly used in biology class, it earns these points even if it’s not a particularly common wider-world word, e.g. meiosis and mitosis.

Conceptual Transferability + 3
The concept represented by this word is applicable to numerous situations and disciplines, e.g. percentage and freedom of speech. 

Under this system, archaic words would get a low rating and therefore be least likely to show up on a vocabulary list for students. These are often the words that students pull out of texts due to their relative strangeness, but other than filling the curiosity of the moment, there is little long-term value to the word. Chifferobe and scuppernong from To Kill a Mockingbird are good examples of low-value words. Students want to know what they are, but a quick explanation might suffice. Each of these words would each score a 1 for their contextual use. Putting it on a vocabulary list/quiz takes up a lot of curriculum time with very little payback down the road. Magnanimous has higher value. While it’s not used in everyday speech, it has transferable components. You can literally translate it to “great souled,” (magna + animus) and students gain a deeper understanding of words that share the same roots, e.g. magnificent, magnum, magnate, animus, animal, animate, etc. So magnanimous would get a score of two if presented de-contextualized. It has light usage but solid components.

Finally, we should assign more weight to terms that stand for complex mechanisms. James Flynn dubs these terms shorthand abstractions and defines them thus: “[Terms that] …stand for a cluster of interrelated ideas that virtually spell out a method of critical analysis applicable to social and moral issues.” Common shorthand abstractions include terms like percentage, market, tolerance, democracy, freedom of speech, natural selection, and my favorite, hasty generalization (and all of the other logical fallacies and rhetorical techniques, to say nothing of other scientific and mathematical concepts). These terms are significantly complex, and while they take longer to unpack with students (you can’t just show them a picture and move on), they can pay huge dividends down the line. Flynn believes that the rise of shorthand abstractions into everyday speech helps explain the rising improvement of IQ scores in developed countries since the 1950s (a.k.a. The Flynn Effect).

So again, vocabulary refers to any terms or concepts that we ask our students to learn or memorize. This includes the general set of “hard words” in English class, geographical and historical terms and data in history, math concepts, scientific methods, concepts, and general information. Determining the relative value of vocabulary is currently a significant part of science and history classes as they currently operate, but it can be applied just effectively to English classes, which might mean shifting from the standard “SAT prep” style of memorizing random hard words towards a set of critical thinking terms (which can substantially improve thinking and writing skills). This pages on this site presents the terms that have yielded the greatest results in my classrooms over the last several years.


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