Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Comeback of Words (Pearson)

This post is courtesy of Dr. P. David Pearson.  David is a faculty member in the programs in Language and Literacy and Cognition and Development at the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Berkeley, where he served as Dean from 2001-2010. Current research projects include Seeds of Science/Roots of Reading -- a Research and Development effort with colleagues at Lawrence Hall of Science in which reading, writing, and language are employed as tools to foster the development of knowledge and inquiry in science--and the Strategic Education Research Partnership (SERP)--a collaboration between UC Berkeley, Stanford, and the SFUSD, designed to embed research within the portfolio of school-based issues and priorities. Across his career, David has earned numerous awards for his contributions to reading research. He is the founding editor of the Handbook of Reading Research, now in its fourth volume.  David taught elementary school in California for several years.

I have been a fan of vocabulary, both as a conceptual/theoretical issue and as an instructional phenomenon, for well over 40 years. I have always loved dictionaries, and thesauruses even more. And I never ceased to be amazed at how easily vocabulary maps onto our conceptual understanding of the world(s) in which we live, both the natural world that surrounds us and the intellectual conceits that we create in our imagined worlds.

I have this vivid recollection of a conversation between me and two ardent whole language advocates in 1977, just a few months after Dale Johnson and I published a book entitled, Teaching Reading Vocabulary, in which we made a case for the explicit teaching of words in several senses and contexts. "How could you publish a book about words?" they complained. "Words don't really exist, except as a convenient orthographic convention. And in writing about words, you encourage teachers to focus on them rather than on the meaning of text." So went  the battle for about two hours (along with a good bottle of Cabernet, as I recall, maybe two!). Neither they nor I changed our positions. They still don't like words, and I do. But it did make me think about why I think vocabulary is so important. And it's because words aren't the point of focusing on words. Meaning is! But words are the convention we have adopted as a species (and words really are a universal component of language) for naming the meanings we wish to point to, highlight, feature, and discuss. And so it is not words for words' sake, but words for the doors of meanings they open for us that really matters.
Click to enlarge

In my own recent work with Gina Cervetti and others at Lawrence Hall of Science at UC Berkeley, we are working on the role of word learning as an instance of the acquisition of conceptual knowledge about science. And that has led us to our own theory of the development of conceptual knowledge/word meaning, shown here. This is slide 55 of Science and Literacy.

The basic idea is that we have to encounter words in many settings in order to "own" it: (a) as a "representation" to pronounce or decode, (b) as a "definitional" entity (where a definition is something like a "summary" of one's word knowledge), (c) as an entity that we meet in a range of oral, written and experiential contexts, (d) as a part of a semantic network of related concepts/words, (d) as a "sign" we use when we DO something in the world (I have learned, in my work on the role of language in hands-on science, that this embodied connection is much more important than I ever thought it might be), and (e) as a label we use when synthesize our knowledge about a topic or an experience. That is the essence of slides 54-55 in the Powerpoint presentation at this link. To that list, if I were revising that slide knowing what I have learned from Susan Ebbers, I would add a morphological setting in-between the definitional and the semantic settings. 

All of these settings are important, none moreso than any other. The simple truth is that when it comes to learning vocabulary, nothing beats exposure and use--in every possible learning modality. In Seeds and Roots, we say, when it comes to learning new vocabulary, Read it! Write it! Talk it! Do it! There is no better--maybe no other--way.

That's all for now.  Thanks, Susan, for giving me a little space in your blog.  Look forward to hearing from lots of you.


  1. Reading the recollection of David's conversation with his peers years ago reminded me of a conversation I recently had with a friend. I was talking rather passionately about this quest for vocbulary aquisition in my 6th grade Science classroom. I was speaking of my frustrations with the lack of foundation on which to build academic language. I have recently realized (at Susan's workshop) that I am not going far enough back to lay a foundation, which I am determined to lay as best I can. And the question was asked, "Why go to so much trouble if this has been ignored by everyone else until now? Why be so passionate about it? Won't they pick it up through meaning later?" I answered them with a quote from Plato that Susan reminded me of. "When the mind is thinking, it is talking to itself." I then followed with the question,"What then would be true if the mind that is hungry to think does not have an adequate vocabulary with which to hold its own conversation? What is that mind to do at that point?" As a teacher of Science I can think of other things that I would rather champion than language and vocabulary aquistion. But I am not sure that anything else would have as great an impact on the children entrusted to me.

  2. Karen Romney11/04/2009

    I have found that using word webbing similar to your example is an effective tool in helping students create a learning structure as they approach new and challenging vocabulary.

  3. I remember you, Michelle! Thanks for the follow-up. If you go to the Seeds of Science url in David's blog you will find an approach that allows you to champion science, as you always have, and also promote academic literacy. Yes!

  4. Hey David,

    Thanks for your post. Among other ideas, I was delighted with this "And it's because words aren't the point of focusing on words. Meaning is!" My own work is built very much on this view. The centre of my own work with teachers and students is to dive into investigating how the spelling/meaning connections of words work. However, I always emphasize that the ultimate target of any word investigation is never the word itself, but instead a deeper understanding about how spelling structure works to represent the meaning of words, and skills for making connections of meaning within and between words. I often use a line from Alfred North Whitehead that gets at your point as well. To paraphrase: "The job of the educator is to help the learner see the woods by means of the trees". If we want to understand how the spelling/meaning system works in English (the woods) we need to study words (the trees) that reveal how that system works.

    "Never send a test out to do a curriulum’s job!" is a line from your slide show that gets at the critical role of the type of experiences we give students with words through our instruction.

    Judging by your post, I suspect you will find much of interest at this link of videos from classrooms and workshops. http://web.mac.com/peterbowers1/Site_29/Videos_from_WW_World_Tour_09.html

    Video #2 provides a good example of using an investigation of how the spelling of a word and its morphological family are related by consistent structural conventions. This kind of investigations demands the kind of deep processing during vocabulary instruction that you are discussing. As Susan's work has pointed out working with a morphological relatives at one time is extremely valuable, and by treating a set of words from a morphological family as the "data" that kids investigate to make sense of how words work, students learn not just about the meaning of the original word and words that share its base, but also they gain skill, knowledge and motivation for investigating any family of words.

    Thanks for you post!

  5. Thanks for your comments, everyone. Very informative. Peter, I went to your site to view the video. Love the idea of word sums!!! Very generative.

  6. Dr. Elaine Roberts6/05/2013

    Hi David,
    I appreciate your thoughts about words including the Cervetti concept map and your idea for adding a morphological piece to vocabulary graphic organizers. Students need to be able to pronounce the word, understand it's meaning, and not be overwhelmed by it in order to recognize, understand, and use it readily when reading and writing.
    Elaine Roberts
    Author, Keys to Literacy Instruction for the NET Generation, Grades 4-12, 2013, Roberts, E., & Coffey, D., Kendall Hunt Publishing.

  7. David,

    I enjoyed your nostalgic introduction, and the debate it inspired. Thank you for including an excerpt from your slideshow concerning words conceptualized. It is a visual that will continually remind me of the importance of vocabulary enrichment in my instructional practices. I generally lead students to a stage of contextualization, yet it is critical to apply and synthesize words just as often. Thanks again, and have a great day.

    Kelsey Hall

    1. David,

      As I was reading your blog post I began to reflect on my own teaching of words. When looking at your slide I realized that I don't typically make words applicable to their lives. I don't use stories that connect their word to real life nor do I use activities that apply the word to a real life activity. I also noticed that I really only focus on teaching the definition of a word and I might do a graphic organizer with the students to note the connecting pieces (as you did in your slide) and that is about it. I look forward to adding a more interactive and engaging element to my vocabulary instruction in the future.

      Elizabeth Roddy Wells

  8. Wow! I teach third grade and I really think this word web would be an effective tool when helping my students learn a new challenging science or social studies word. I like the connections mapping of the word because I think it will help my students grasp more visually what the word is all about.

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  10. David,
    I appreciate how you described the understanding of vocabulary as "owning" the word. I see it all to often that when teachers are instructing their students on new vocabulary they only have the students memorize the word and the definition. The teachers are leaving out crucial steps to help the students truly "own" the new word. Just as your graphic shows, students must not only recognize and define the word they must also identify relationships of the word, use the word in context, apply the word to the world around them and then synthesize the meaning of the word to other contexts.

    -Victoria Skidmore

  11. David,
    As I read your post, I thought about a training I attended for teaching vocabulary to ELL students. The training stressed that we use the chosen vocabulary words in a context they would be familiar with and to also make a connection to their life using the word. We were also asked to provide a picture of it if possible and to provide the definition. This post reminded me of all the things we discusses in this training. It also made me ask the question, "Why not do it for all students?" I feel that the word web will definitely allow students to see the connections between words of similar meanings.

  12. David,
    I enjoyed reading your post. As I read, it reminded me of a training I attended for teaching vocabulary words to ELL students. We were taught to provide a picture if possible and a definition. We were also taught to use the word in a sentence of relevance to them so that they could make connections between the word and themselves. I also found your idea of concept mapping the word to be a wonderful way of bridging other words with similar meanings. Thanks for sharing.

  13. I am so thrilled to have been introduced to your work by my professor, Dr. Elaine Roberts. I am a middle school teacher. I see students all the time who struggle with reading because it is not formally taught in the middle grades in my county. I currently teach in-school-suspension which means I get the students who have disrupted class in one way or another. Most of these kids disrupt class because they are poor readers but have very little if any reading instructional help. Thank you for showing teachers how to bring literacy and reading instruction into the content area classes.

  14. Gwen Hennessee2/11/2016

    I thoroughly enjoyed your blog post. I use word webs often, so it was refreshing to view your Words as Concepts graphic. I find that linking words to ideas or concepts broadens the meaning of the them, allows for better comprehension, and aligns with your thought process of "And it's because words aren't the point of focusing on words. Meaning is!" idea. When teaching vocabulary, I find that I never focus on the word itself, but the structure, sound, and meaning of the word. Early in my career, I focused on the word by utilizing rote memory and repetitive exposure. It was only after realizing that my students comprehended, recognized, and could utilize new vocabulary in communication when I broadened my teaching to word structure and meaning. Thank you for your post. It was a wonderful read.

  15. Katherine Carter2/11/2016

    I found you post most enlightening. Several years ago, I signed up to pilot the Light Unit from Seed and Roots. It was fabulous. My students were able to interact with the vocabulary in many different ways. They read about it, the created hands-on demonstrations of the vocabulary, and they wrote about it. It was phenomenal. I completely agree with what you said about exposure and use in every single way-read it, write it, talk it, do it. The more and varied types of interactions that our students have with new vocabulary, the more likely it will be to “stick” so that the student can apply it in future contexts.

  16. Sandra Marrongelli2/13/2016

    David, Your ideas about words being vehicles for meaning are right on target! I think this is exemplified when a person becomes fluent in another language. At that time, the person is no longer translating to his native language, but just sees and experiences the meaning of the words in the new language. We learn a second language best by immersion and practice; we learn our native language first and best by immersion and practice; so it stands to reason that we will continue to acquire language and vocabulary through immersion and practice, including all of the stages you mentioned.

  17. Incredible Blog Post Sir. I love Words as well. I first began to truly be interested in words and their uses when I began to pastor. Writing sermons was always a glorious outlet to bring words into play in a creative way striving for the congregation to be able to hold onto the meaning of the sermon longer by memorable vocabulary. I currently teach 2nd grade and the tools that you have provided will be a valuable addition to my classroom instruction as well. Thanks so much for sharing such "words" of wisdom:-) God bless you greatly, Joe Driver

  18. Earl Banks2/06/2017

    Your ideas are very much in line with my thoughts about vocabulary and it seems we need to continuously build upon our own, even as adults. Additionally, I truly appreciate your concept map and plan to utilize it in my instruction as well. Thanks so much for sharing.

  19. Lucila Farina2/07/2017

    "I think vocabulary is so important. And it's because words aren't the point of focusing on words. Meaning is!"
    This reminded me of a linguistics course I took when I was studying to become an ESL teacher. I found semantics so interesting when I realized other cultures with different languages have words for concepts we've never thought to name as a singular concept in English, like Jayus the Indonesian word that means a joke so poorly told and so unfunny that one cannot help but laugh (https://matadornetwork.com/abroad/20-awesomely-untranslatable-words-from-around-the-world/). It's interesting to see culture to culture what concepts are deemed word-worthy and it makes you wonder why we don't deem certain concepts/feeling word-worthy ourselves. With that in mind, perhaps your theory, which enumerates all the elements of a word, is a good way to introduce our students to the idea that words are representations of concepts. The concept imbues the word with meaning and not the other way around.

  20. "The simple truth is that when it comes to learning vocabulary, nothing beats exposure and use--in every possible learning modality." I couldn't agree more with this statement! This is one of the reasons I concentrate more on high frequency words in my classroom. These are the words that students will encounter the most, so it's important that they see them often!

  21. "The simple truth is that when it comes to learning vocabulary, nothing beats exposure and use--in every possible learning modality!" I couldn't agree more with this statement. This is one of the reason I spend more time on high-frequency words. When students encounter the same words frequently, they will be more likely to master them.

    1. Nicola C.2/11/2017

      "When it comes to vocabulary, Read it! Write it! Talk it! Do it!" this is the reality of thoroughly learning vocabulary and knowing how to apply that vocabulary knowledge in many different situations and for varied uses. Just learning the definition of a word is not enough. That word meaning should be used and applied in various contexts for the learner to truly expand their knowledge and for meaning to become relevant. Knowing the definition of words to pass tests is not enough. Learning the meanings of words for application and understanding is more meaningful.

  22. Dr. Pearson
    Thank you for the reminder that the simple truth is, exposing students to new words and encouraging use is as profound and important as any other vocabulary learning tool.
    -K.A. Unsicker

  23. Dr. Pearson,
    What a powerful post! I enjoyed reading it. When you said, "The simple truth is that when it comes to learning vocabulary, nothing beats exposure and use--in every possible learning modality." I strongly agree with this. They have got to have the exposure, the use, and the ways in which to learn new vocabulary.
    -K. O'Rourke

  24. Dr. Pearson,
    What an interesting read! Thank you for your insight. When you said, "The simple truth is that when it comes to learning vocabulary, nothing beats exposure and use--in every possible learning modality, it made me nod my head in agreement. The students have got to not only be exposed to the vocabulary, but they've got to use it in every possible way to help build from it.
    -K. O'Rourke

  25. Dr. Pearson, Thank you for sharing the concept map. Words are indeed concepts, and I think teaching fewer words in a thorough manner is better than skimming over many words, as we tend to do in school. Also digging deeper into individualized words that students choose and are interested in is more valuable than a blanket list of words they do not care about. I remember hearing my husband using the word "moot" and being so curious because I had never heard it before. He explained it, gave some examples, and I had a new word! It stuck, too. I am intrigued by the 30 day challenge and resolved to spend more time teaching vocabulary, but in a fun and relevant and thorough manner! Thanks for the inspiration.
    Shirley Burt


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