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Which comes first: the idea or the vocabulary?

Do we care more about the kids knowing vocabulary or the ideas behind the vocabulary?

When we drill vocabulary words into kids, we make the words more important than the ideas. And the best place this happens is standardized testing. You see, on these prefabricated, fill-in-the-bubble tests, vocabulary is king. If you know what the big words mean and you understand how to play the game called multiple guess, then you have astronomically improved your chances of scoring high. (Of course it helps to be affluent, too)

And this is precisely why teachers feel pressure to make damn sure their students know their subject’s vocabulary words. Suddenly words like numerator, manipulating variable, verb and totalitarianism become entire lessons.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against kids learning vocabulary. However, I am far more interested in kids understanding the ideas behind these words. The ideas behind a numerator, manipulating variable, verb and totalitarianism can be constructed from within, in interaction with their environment. However, the actual words are socially constructed, and therefore, need to be introduced to the kids.

So which comes first: the idea or the vocabulary?

I believe meaning has to come first. If you start with the vocabulary then these concepts become things the kids think they have to be told about. They come to see learning as something that has to be done to them, and in doing so, they develop an acute sense of helplessness and dependency.

To avoid this, teachers would be wise to create a learning environment where kids can play around with the essence of the vocabulary, allowing them to construct their own understanding – and then, and only then, introduce the fact that these ideas were discovered before them and they already have a fancy name.

About joebower

I believe students should experience success and failure not as reward and punishment but as information.


14 thoughts on “Which comes first: the idea or the vocabulary?

  1. Have you heard Radiolab’s show on Words? I think you’ll find it really
    interesting. 🙂

    Posted by Jo Hawke | January 2, 2011, 10:10 pm
  2. I totally agree Joe. I teach mathematics, which involves a tremendous amount of vocabulary. When I teach, I focus initially on the concepts using familiar vocabulary to describe them, as the students become comfortable with the concepts, I start using the vocabulary in context. If students ask about the vocabulary, I define it specifically, but in general I use the vocabulary after the concept is understood so that students can attach the vocabulary to something they know. I think of the vocabulary in mathematics as a vehicle for discussion about a concept, rather than the important part of the learning itself.

    Posted by dwees | January 2, 2011, 10:17 pm
  3. I’m with you. The ideas have to come first, if only because
    whenever I think of an idea, it’s always like, “I need a word to
    describe this.” Furthermore, I always find that vocabulary is just
    a means of transmitting an idea, but it’s not the idea itself. We
    can still get our ideas through without these multi-syllabic
    representations, but we use them for efficiency. However, the idea
    is more important. This has implications for our students, who are
    constantly drilled into writing in the King’s English, even when
    they have no idea what they’re reading or writing. It’s got to be a
    hand-in-hard partnership with language and idea.

    Posted by Jose Vilson | January 2, 2011, 10:24 pm
  4. Your intuitions match what vocabulary experts declare. Use
    the language known to explore ideas, then bring in the disciplinary
    words that more succinctly explain the concept. If teachers really
    want students to learn the vocabulary, that is how they should
    teach it. Plus, it means recognizing and valuing student thought
    and communication. Thank you for reminding me of this important
    teaching strategy.

    Posted by Bonita | January 2, 2011, 10:36 pm
  5. It doesn’t start with either. Learning starts with observation, from which ideas develop, from which vocabulary emerges in order to talk about the observations more efficiently.

    Posted by jerridkruse | January 3, 2011, 12:28 am
  6. Yes Joe. And for some kids (and adults) learning interesting new words, sophisticated words, words that give you strut and precision and cache, is like watching them fill up with power. You ever seen that? I have. I also think that language–words–shape your brain, your concepts, your thinking. If you can say it, you can imagine it. The more words you have, and the more you can use, with laser strike force or cottony softness, the more your world can become what you want it to be. So for some, it’s power.

    Here’s one I learned today. Sesquicentennial.

    Posted by Kirsten | January 3, 2011, 4:51 pm
  7. I’ve been reading Patrick Shannon’s Reading Against Democracy. Having benefitted uncritically from the system as a kid, I’m now constantly surprised by how long we’ve endemically, systemically, and systematically failed to to make the right choice between acculturation to control and real, liberating education.

    What has finally come first for me, in my 30s, is a readiness to see. Earlier in my life and my career, I was incapable of the ideas I have now and the vocabulary with which I share them . Then I moved through a series of schools that showed me first-hand what’s possible in public education in all sorts of ways, and I valued different possibilities differently along the way.

    We should create places that encourage kids to see and weigh possibilities; then they can draw their own ideas, and we can help them express what they think.

    Let’s begin with environments rich for observation.

    Engaging post and comments – thanks, all –

    Posted by Chad Sansing | January 3, 2011, 5:09 pm
  8. Vocabulary is important, hugely important. It has to happen through inquiry, observation, interaction and yes . . . occasionally from direct instruction. When working with a high ELL population, I have to do some vocab-first strategies so that they can access a text. When teaching math, however, we often start with processes and move to vocabulary.

    Language is a powerful tool and often the semantic environment forms the vocabulary that then shapes the ideas. Bottom line for me? We need both and the order depends upon the context.

    Posted by johntspencer | January 4, 2011, 11:17 pm
    • Yes, context is important, but we can create that context. If possible, I believe more concrete strategies are more powerful (especially for ELLs). That is, the “vocab-first strategies” you speak of are going to be more powerful if you can connect the new words to concrete representations. Of course not all words have concrete representations, but when possible, starting with observations, even with vocab-first strategies is most powerful.

      Posted by jerridkruse | January 4, 2011, 11:29 pm
  9. As a science teacher, it is easy to fall into the trap of hearing a student use a key vocabulary term and assuming that means they “get it”–like if I ask why plates stay put when you pull the tablecloth quickly and they say “inertia”. The easiest thig to do is to say “you got it!” but the word is only the shallowest piece of evidence of their understanding. I have now replaced the intuition to say “you got it!” with a reflex to ask “what do you mean by that?” to make sure they mean what I think they mean…Even if they do, explicating it tends tends to help them and everyone else

    Posted by Luke | January 5, 2011, 12:33 am
    • vocabulary(language), like all technologies can do so much for us, that we forget the important things we leave behind – in some cases, depth of understanding and ability to explain in everyday terms.

      Posted by jerridkruse | January 5, 2011, 12:31 pm
    • Luke, you make a very important point.

      Often kids learn to play the game of school very well and start to game the game. If they know they can dazzle teachers with vocabulary rather than with real learning to garnish their grades, some will do just that.

      I too like to reply to kids with phrases like “what do you mean by that?” or “tell me more” or “why did you say that”.

      Asking for more information and clarification is a far better way to inspire further conversation than mindless praise.

      Posted by Joe Bower | January 6, 2011, 12:12 pm
  10. I think this post is really interesting and would recommend checking the work of Steven Pinker on language and thought if you haven’t done so already!

    Let me try to bring a different perspective as I think this is an important discussion, but needs to be seen from many different angles.

    I tend to agree with Jerrid when he says “It doesn’t start with either. Learning starts with observation”. You see, if we focus the question on the vocabulary or the idea, it sounds like a chicken and egg problem, but the answer to the chicken and the egg is provided by evolution — it starts with a species that found reproductive success in laying something akin to an egg, and those species later evolved into many other species, including the familiar to us chicken.

    I think something similar applies to the vocabulary and the ideas — they’re both couched into some neural processes and mind concepts that after settling in our brain can be expressed using language, concepts and ideas — crucially, not just language, but music, visual artifacts, even hand signals. Saying that one needs vocabulary to understand ideas suggests that only typical hearing and talking adults are capable of dealing with ideas, which we all know is not true. On the other side, suggesting that when faced with new ideas we develop a vocabulary to efficiently handle them also suggests that people with no language will have hard time coping — and we have pidgins and creoles to prove us wrong.

    I, like Jerrid, see the vocabulary — like the alphabet, hand signs, musical notes, etc. — as a technology that we can employ to better communicate concepts (sometimes even to better learn and understand them). But unlike the computer I am using to type a text discussing an idea, the vocabulary and similar technologies are not detached from the ideas they’re referring too — on the contrary, I strongly believe they’re born out of the same mind concepts, which offers a great opportunity for learning, as adding new ideas leads to seeking new vocabulary for efficiency and vice versa, adding new vocabulary leads to a desire to understand the ideas behind.

    Ultimately, our brain thrives on experiences and is a master observer and storyteller. No matter if we start from ideas or vocabulary, we should keep in mind to provide the experience and tell the story behind to inspire learning!

    Posted by kima | January 6, 2011, 2:33 am


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