Vocabulary is crucial to reading comprehension, but it can be hard to teach—especially if the words are abstract. A promising new approach uses pictures that prompt students to infer a word’s meaning.
The standard approach to vocabulary instruction is to give students verbal definitions to memorize. But for many kids, those definitions are hard to understand. And they usually don’t adequately convey all the nuances that many words contain. That’s especially true for abstract words and concepts, like judicious and prominent.
Students who pick up vocabulary like that are usually avid readers who encounter them repeatedly in varied contexts. As those students acquire more and more vocabulary, their reading comprehension continues to increase. But the kids who are not avid readers are often locked in a vicious cycle: they avoid reading because they lack the vocabulary that makes reading easier, which means they’re unlikely to acquire that same vocabulary.
One thing that can help is having a teacher read aloud to students, using complex texts grouped around a specific topic. That gives students a chance to hear the same new vocabulary repeatedly and build knowledge of a topic.
Nonverbal teaching techniques can also be beneficial, especially for words with abstract meanings. Several years ago, when I was observing a second-grade class using an unusually sophisticated curriculum, I saw the teacher come up with innovative ways to convey new vocabulary to the students, most of whom came from non-English-speaking families.
When the class was learning about the Battle of Thermopylae between the Ancient Greeks and Persians, the teacher pushed desks and chairs together to create a narrow pass—like the one where the Greeks trapped the Persians—and had the kids file through it. When they were learning about Buddhism, the teacher came up with a gesture—a hand swooping up and away from the forehead—to convey the meaning of the word enlightenment, which she described as “a greater understanding of life.”
Research now suggests it may be even more powerful to show students an array of pictures, each of which has some relationship to a word, and have them try to infer the meaning of a word by figuring out what the pictures have in common.
Inspired by an Eighth-Grader
Speech-language pathologists Beth Lawrence and Deena Seifert came up with that approach years ago, after Lawrence had worked with an eighth-grader I’ll call Sara. According to Lawrence, Sara had “genius-level” nonverbal skills but struggled with language.
Lawrence recalls that her breakthrough came after a “particularly harrowing session” with Sara during which they spent a great deal of time on the meaning of the word prominent. Afterwards, Lawrence says, Sara “informed me emphatically that prominent means ‘short.’”
Lawrence realized that she had been trying to use language to convey the meanings of words to a student who struggled with language. What if she tried using images instead? After all, that’s the way young children naturally acquire words for concrete objects: observing the characteristics of various canines to come up with the meaning of dog; then perhaps overgeneralizing by saying dog when seeing any four-legged animal; then being corrected by a caregiver who says something like, “No, that’s a cow;” and eventually coming up with the category of animal, along with subcategories like dog and cow—as well as pet and farm animal. Perhaps there was a way to speed up that process.
Lawrence found four photos that conveyed different aspects of the word prominent: an ornate gate in front of a mansion; a tall evergreen surrounded by shorter, bushier trees whose leaves were turning orange; a businesswoman standing in the foreground, her arms crossed, flanked by what appear to be admiring employees; and a close-up of a pair of vivid green eyes in an otherwise black-and-white photo.
Lawrence had captions prepared to go with the images. But within six seconds, Lawrence recalls, Sara said, “Oh, prominent means to stand out in some way.” She was also able to give Lawrence two additional examples of the word.
Dual Coding and Semantic Reasoning
Using images to teach vocabulary takes advantage of a concept in cognitive science called dual coding. The theory is that visual and verbal information are processed along different mental channels, and taking in information through both channels reinforces a word’s meaning and increases the chances that it will be remembered.
In addition, asking students to figure out the definition of a word themselves, based on a carefully curated set of images, can be more powerful than just giving them the definition. Lawrence and Seifert coined the term “semantic reasoning” to describe this process.
The method involves first showing—and reading aloud—a target vocabulary word, with no definition provided. The student simultaneously sees a set of images illustrating different aspects of the word, as Sara did, although the number of images is now six rather than four.
After viewing the images, the student can see, or hear read aloud, a caption that goes with each one. These captions aren’t definitions, but instead use synonyms and straightforward language to evoke different nuances of a word’s meaning. If the word is prominent, the caption for the picture of a tall evergreen surrounded by bushy orange trees might say, “That tree sure stands out compared to the others.”
The teacher can then lead a discussion about what all six images and captions have in common, guiding students to infer the target word’s meaning. Only then is a student-friendly definition of the word revealed, after which students discuss how well it fits with the definition they suggested.
A Ready-Made Set of Words, Images, and Captions
Teachers can replicate this approach on their own, searching the internet for suitable images, but that can be difficult and time-consuming. Another possibility is to use a web-based program called InferCabulary, which Lawrence says she and Seifert developed in response to teacher interest. It offers a ready-made bank of words and associated images and is now available through a company called Really Great Reading.
Teachers can search InferCabulary for specific words, but alternatively they can search for frequently used books—like The Giver—and get suggestions for words to target. The program can either by used by students on their own or as part of a teacher’s explicit instruction.
Last year, researchers at the University of Virginia published the results of a quasi-experimental study of the method that looked at a sample of 656 fifth-graders. They found positive effects, as compared to standard vocabulary instruction, when students used the program independently. An earlier, smaller study found positive effects when the method was part of a teacher’s direct instruction. That research is promising, and it would be nice to have more.
Lawrence says that InferCabulary—like any kind of vocabulary instruction—will be most effective when it reinforces the vocabulary used in texts that form part of a coherent, content-rich curriculum. Students need to encounter words in meaningful contexts to be able to understand and remember them. Images can be a powerful supplement to instruction that some students—perhaps many—will need, but they’re unlikely to be able to substitute for immersion in rich, complex text.
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