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Words Mean More to Students When They're Personal

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When it comes to learning vocabulary, many educators, from researchers (see Margaret McKeown's work) to expert teachers (see this great series on vocabulary instruction from Larry Ferlazzo's Classroom Q&A Blog), agree that contextual learning is the key. But I think what's even more important than learning words in context, is finding opportunities to help students learn words in personally meaningful contexts.

We all know that you can't simply memorize your way to a better vocabulary. Research is clear that giving students a word list like this and having them memorize definitions ultimately doesn't promote long-term retention.                                        

  • defiant                                                  
  • dystopia
  • insurmountable
  • reaping
  • sadistic
  • selfless
  • tribute

What we want to do is help students encounter new vocabulary words in context as they read, for example, here are the same 12 vocabulary words written into a summary of The Hunger Games.

In this dystopian novel, the defiant Katniss and the selfless Peeta have been selected as District 12's tributes in the reaping for the 74th Annual Hunger Games: a sadistic gladiator-style reality show where contestants face seemingly insurmountable odds as they fight to the death.

PW-27-1.jpgProviding context can go a long way in helping students learn new words. But if the student has never read The Hunger Games or seen the movies or just isn't interested in the series (hard to imagine, I know! but bear with me!), giving them this context may not be sufficient. What the heck is a dystopia? And what's with the reaping? However, if the student is a fan of the series—The Hunger Games is personally meaningful reading content for them—then offering this context is incredibly useful in helping them learn new words.

Giving students context is a necessary and important first step, but to really have an impact, we (as educators and as startups trying to help educators) should be striving to  create more opportunities for students, particularly those who may be struggling with literacy or reading comprehension or vocabulary skills, to engage with personally meaningful reading content.

So how do we do this? Well, technology can go a long way in enabling this type of increased personalization. But we also need to continue to expand the scope of what is considered "acceptable reading material" for students. More about that in our next post.

We'd love to hear your thoughts and feedback at @professorword.

Until next time,


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  Have questions or feedback? Comment below or let me know on Twitter @professorword!

Photo Credit: Flickr user WeeLittlePiggy


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