What Do We Know about How Learners Acquire New Vocabulary?

Posted on October 22nd, 2014

Margaret G. McKeown, a Senior Scientist at the Learning Research and Development Center and a Clinical Professor in the School of Education at the University of Pittsburgh, explains how learners acquire new vocabulary.

[Video Transcript] What do we know about how learners acquire new vocabulary? We know that it's an incremental process—that we accumulate information about word meaning from meeting the word over and over again in different contexts, and as we meet the word each time we accumulate specific information about it. And as we get more and more encounters under our belt, we begin to generalize—so, to pull features that are common across those encounters—and that leads us to developing a word meaning representation, a mental representation, of a word's meaning.

So, for example, if you saw the sentence, "Nora got smaller and smaller and finally vanished," and that was the first time you'd run into the word "vanished," you'd have a pretty good idea that you weren't—you didn't see her anymore – she was gone. But there are other things to know about the word “vanished” that you wouldn't get from that – just that context. For example, does it always apply to people? Is it deliberate? Did she try to disappear? Is it always a gradual process, as it was in that context? So, those are things you would need to fill in your representation of "vanished" over meeting it again and again in other different contexts.

The best word meaning representations are generalized, but they're also connected to a lot of different words and experiences that relate to that word. And those connections are really helpful, or really necessary, when you meet the word in subsequent contexts so that you can make sense of whatever context the word appears in. So, that—those connections help you make connections to other words that are—and ideas that are in that context and integrate that word into the context so you can figure it out and understand it, and that really is—the point as you're reading or listening to something is to understand that context that's in front of you.

So, you might wonder, "What about a dictionary definition? Isn't all the information you need about a word meaning right there in one place?" Well, not exactly. Definitions are useful. They're a good shorthand for word meaning, and they can be particularly useful in conjunction with other information that you have about a word, but by itself, it can't do the whole job. It doesn’t have all those connections that you need in order to apply a word to understanding a context, and the language of dictionaries is not explanatory.

If students are looking up totally unfamiliar words, the language of the dictionary can be incomprehensible. So, one of my favorites that I saw recently was the word "fickle," defined as "erratic changeableness or instability," and I don't think it's very helpful if you don't know the word. And what we really need our vocabulary for is helping us make sense of contexts, and dictionary definitions aren't so useful for doing that and we don't really need to bring dictionary definitions to mind. That doesn’t help us use the words we know.

Another thing that makes a difference to acquiring vocabulary that changes the learning task is the type of word 'cause different words have different roles in the language. Isabel Beck and I came up with a—the idea of word tiers to describe and help explain this. So, we have everyday words that we use all the time in conversation, and those are very concrete words. We use them over and over again in very familiar contexts. Those words are really easy for children to acquire on their own, and we think of those as Tier 1 words.

Words that are more sophisticated tend to be found more often in text than in conversation. They are words that are more abstract. They have multiples senses, and we think of these as Tier 2 words. So, some examples might be "virtual," "suspend," "consistent," "perspective." These words are harder for students to learn on their own. And so, they're really good candidates for instruction, but even with instruction, students need a lot of encounters before they know the word well enough to use it well in different contexts.

And then, there’s Tier 3. Those words are rarer and mostly specialized vocabulary. So, for example, the words that apply specifically to science are Tier 3 words. So, we don’t think of those as vocabulary so much as concepts of science. So, those words represent new concepts, and we think of those as better taught within the content domain of science. If you're learning about plant life, then you learn the word "photosynthesis." You don't have that as a freestanding vocabulary word. And Tier 2 words, on the other hand, are not new concepts; they're just new ways to use familiar ideas and concepts or more complex ways to express familiar concepts.

So, encounters with words are really the key. You can't learn a word if you're not exposed to it. What you need are meaningful encounters so that you can get information about a word meaning and plentiful amount of encounters over time to be able to learn words. So, I'd say the overall message about vocabulary is, be patient with your students because learning vocabulary is incremental. So, it might seem like, you know, you’ve taught a word, and the next day, students have forgotten it, but it takes a lot of encounters and a lot of information about the word to really plant the seed of it in your mind to build a mental representation.

And be discriminating, as far as choosing which words to give attention to in the classroom because there are way too many words in the language for them all to be taught directly, but, on the other hand, they don't all need direct attention. There are lots of words that are very easy, very concrete that students are gonna learn easily on their own. And then, there are a lot of words that are so rare that students are only gonna run into them once or twice in their lives, and so, there's no need to spend time teaching the meanings of those, and there are a lot of words in between. And give kids lots of language around words. Meaningful conversations around new words are essential.

New word meanings can't grow if they’re not embedded in a rich medium. They need lots of language, lots of interaction around them, and the good thing about this is it’s really a lot more fun to talk about words and to use words and to play with language than it is to look up words in a dictionary.

Margaret McKeown

Margaret G. McKeown is a Senior Scientist at the Learning Research and Development Center and Clinical Professor in the School of Education, University of Pittsburgh. She is also a Fellow of the American Educational Research Association. Her work addresses practical, current problems that classroom teachers and their students face in reading comprehension and vocabulary. Most recently, she developed a program for teaching academic words to middle school students—RAVE (Robust Academic Vocabulary Encounters). Before her career in research, she taught reading and language arts in elementary school. Recently, she and her colleagues Isabel Beck and Linda Kucan published the second edition of Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction.

More information on Margaret G. McKeown.