“If music be the food of love,” as Shakespeare suggests, then the food for the mind is vocabulary.
The term vocabulary is defined as “a list or collection of words or of words and phrases usually alphabetically arranged and explained or defined.” There are a number of reasons to think about these lists of words and phrases as things that are consumable. Consider how often references to words or phrases are framed in metaphors of food:
- Food for thought;
- Digesting what was said;
- Chew on it for a while;
- Difficult to swallow.
These metaphors continue in today’s digital age, where words and phrases are encoded over “feeds” or electronic transmission of news, as from a broadcaster or an Internet newsgroup.
All these food metaphors signal how important vocabulary is to a student’s developing academic life. Just as food is metabolized and turned into the building blocks and fuel that the body needs, educators should see vocabulary to be part of the building blocks of critical thinking. Just as any student must internalize food for energy, research shows that for vocabulary to be effective, students must internalize words to use them correctly in both receptive and verbal language. And just as food is necessary every day for physical growth and stamina, vocabulary is necessary every day, in all subject areas, for a student’s academic growth and stamina.
These food metaphors also support the idea that vocabulary should not be an isolated activity, but a daily requirement that teachers need to incorporate in all lessons. The teaching of vocabulary is too important to be left to workbooks or worksheets; teaching words and word meanings must be part of speaking, listening, reading and writing in every day’s lesson.
While the first step in a successful vocabulary program is explicit instruction, the steps of continued exposure and direct practice are also important. According to the U.S. Department of Education, in teaching vocabulary educators should:
“Use repeated exposure to new words in multiple oral and written contexts and allow sufficient practice sessions.”
In their article posted on Adlit.org, Explicit Vocabulary Instruction, researchers have found that “Words are usually learned only after they appear several times.” Words that appear infrequently may not be the words that should be targeted for explicit instruction.
This research is supported by Robert Marzano who outlined a six step process for educators in Education Leadership Magazine, “The Art and Science of Teaching / Six Steps to Better Vocabulary Instruction” (September 2009). These six steps outline how repeated exposure might be accomplished:
- Provide a description, explanation, or example of the new term.
- Ask students to restate the description, explanation, or example in their own words.
- Ask students to construct a picture, pictograph, or symbolic representation of the term.
- Engage students periodically in activities that help them add to their knowledge of the terms in their vocabulary notebooks.
- Periodically ask students to discuss the terms with one another.
- Involve students periodically in games that enable them to play with terms.
There are many ways that students at every ability level can be independently engaged on digital platforms that support vocabulary activities. There are multiple software programs with “feeds” that can help student practice vocabulary with games or flashcards on different devices. Examples of these platforms include:
Research suggests that it is the repeated exposure to words that is most effective, especially if they appear over an extended period of time. Researchers estimate that it could take as many as 17 exposures for a student to learn a new word.
This kind of repeated exposure echoes the practice of the Pulitzer Prizewinning Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold, who is featured in the (2015) documentary City of Gold. In the film, Gold explains that before writing a review on its food, he will visit a restaurant sometimes a dozen or more times, often tasting the same dish several times “to make sure I get it right.” Gold’s multiple visits to a restaurant “to be sure to get it right” can serve as an example of how educators need to recognize the need for repeated exposure in vocabulary so that students can “get it right” as they ingest and digest vocabulary words.
Students must regularly read their vocabulary words the same way they eat three meals a day, and a possible snack before bed. They must write their vocabulary words, listen to their vocabulary words, and speak their vocabulary words. In offering an academic diet that is rich in vocabulary, educators should know “students are what they eat.”