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To Build Word Consciousness,
You Must Keep the Mind in Mind

Words matter. Learning new words is foundational to students’ success in school. Mastering any academic domain is intimately tied to knowing the words that comprise it. Vocabulary fluency plays a crucial role in reading, writing, and critical-thinking processes. Importantly, since vocabulary is fashioned, processed, and manipulated by the human mind, teachers cannot hope to effectively support literacy growth without understanding how children think, remember, and learn.

The dizzying volume of new and attractive – but often conflicting – research on the science of learning can leave educators feeling mystified. One useful trick to cut through this noise is to view every learning intervention through a single powerful lens–that of human memory. Over the last decade, this singular perspective has allowed us to craft a word-learning system that applies a cohesive set of best practices that helps students develop word consciousness – a curiosity and love for words.

Using the Memory Lens

The educational psychologist John Sweller insightfully defines learning as “an alteration in long-term memory. If nothing is altered in long-term memory, nothing has been learned.” With this in mind, here are some word-learning strategies and interventions – refashioned using a memory lens to help you think about them in a novel way.

1. Why differentiate and personalize:

Learning relies on elaborative encoding – the process of establishing connections between what’s already in our long-term memory and what’s currently being learned. The more connections that can be established, the better we learn and the less likely we are to forget. However, the more disparate your students, the more variation there is in the set of knowledge networks the teacher needs to influence. Providing a way for each and every student in class to slot new information into their existing memories can be a nearly impossible task. Fortunately, technology is well suited for it.

No bespoke vocabulary list could meet the needs of even five students in any given class. Our kids’ experiences are wide-ranging and unique; it’s essential for us to have a differentiated platform. Membean’s personalization translates well to the needs of an extremely varied expatriate population. 

— Erin Edmundson, School Improvement Lead, Canadian International School of Abu Dhabi

2. Why reading alone isn’t enough:

A sufficient vocabulary is a prerequisite for understanding what is read; in fact, 98 percent of the words in a given piece of text must be known for adequate comprehension. Students often resort to guessing when they don’t know a word, which can be error prone – they often don’t even know other words that surround the word they are guessing about! This is especially true for non-native readers. In addition, the most wonderful words are not encountered frequently enough when reading – if at all. A rule of thumb from our data is that students need 15 to 25 exposures to a word before they can remember it. This is difficult to get without wide and varied reading. Effective direct instruction of words, on the other hand, can be carefully crafted to reveal interesting aspects of each word. This provides repeated opportunities for robust learning by linking each of those aspects with pre-existing memories. In addition, direct instruction can ensure repeated exposures to the word. When the word comes up in reading the next time, it’s readily available.

3. Why desirable difficulty should be the goal of instruction:

Every educator has probably been told that learning that is spaced or that is interleaved with other learning is retained longer. Ever wondered why? These instructional manipulations create “desirable difficulties” in learning. Any intervention that requires effort from the learner, that is, that either marshals more pieces of knowledge from long-term memory or involves a deeper search through memory results in better learning. Other such manipulations that increase difficulty for students could be using fill-in-the-blank questions instead of multiple choice, reducing or delaying feedback, or asking nuanced questions. As educators, we should be wary of structuring activities that are too easy for students to accomplish – it might feel like you’re helping your students, but long-term performance most likely will suffer. Creating effort is the most important thing.

4. Why teach word roots:

Knowing that someone who is malicious is evil probably hints that a malevolent person is up to no good because both words share the common root “mal.” Roots can act as important focus points to build large word networks. There’s some evidence that suggests that words having the same roots are clustered together in memory. For example, retrieving the meaning of “untrustworthy” is much faster if you’ve recently retrieved the word “trust”; therefore, it appears that “trusty,” “distrust,” and “untrustworthy” might be stored closer together in our mental lexicon. All words that we teach in Membean are broken down into their constituent prefixes, roots, and suffixes to provide yet another way to remember words.

5. Why metacognition is important:

Students need to learn how they learn. In fact, metacognition is the most important skill with which schools can equip their students. More and more, learning using technology is unsupervised; therefore, students need to become experts at managing their own learning. When a student becomes aware that “this is the sixth time I’ve seen this word, and I still get it wrong” or “I need to slow down” or “I’m finding this word difficult, but I notice that it looks like this other word I know,” they attend to the word more. Once the word has their full attention, they are more likely to reprocess it and/or employ useful word-learning strategies. Deliberately employing learning strategies harnesses a multitude of pre-existing memories to help make sense of new information.

We have harnessed teenagers’ self-absorption to our advantage. In the same way they love to take ‘selfies’, kids love to see data about themselves. Any time you’re willing to sit down with a child to show them a different picture of who they are and how they learn, you have their attention.

— Erin Edmundson, School Improvement Lead, Canadian International School of Abu Dhabi

6. Why assessments can be unreliable learning indicators:

If your students seem to be understanding a concept in class and perform well on their weekly announced test, it seems fair to assume that they’ve mastered the information. This intuition can be very wrong. Assessments are often a measure of temporary knowledge, i.e., they provide an indication of current strength, but say little about permanent changes to long-term memory, which is the real goal of learning. Students could simply cram the evening prior to the test and perform very well – while little permanent learning has actually occurred. What’s known today could be inaccessible tomorrow. Assessments give a false sense of confidence.

7. Why students should get comfortable with forgetting:

While there’s no limit to what we can store, there is a severe limit to what we can recall. Memory is optimized to allow quick retrieval for items that are frequently accessed and forget those items that are less likely to be needed. We all know of words we know that we know – but can no longer recall. The surprising thing, however, is when a forgotten word is relearned again, it comes back even more strongly. Relearning provides a renewed opportunity to re-encode the word into long-term memory. The cues from the current learning environment are combined with the cues from when the word was learned the first time; this combining allows for faster retrieval the next time. Students are often frustrated when they forget. Teachers need to reassure students that forgetting is a natural part of learning.

8. Why quizzes should be the center of learning:

“Testing” is often thought of as a bad word. The relentless emphasis on tests as measurement instruments to gauge what students know has done a disservice to the power of tests as learning instruments. Frequent low-stakes quizzes are the single most powerful learning strategy because they alter the organization of long-term memory to make tested items more readily accessible. Since each quiz occurs at a different time and different questions on the same word exercise different memories, in time many retrieval routes are established for each word. If one specific memory route is unavailable, there’s always an alternate way of getting at the word. Membean spends 80 percent of allocated training time asking questions.

There is a direct correlation between the amount of time students spend on Membean and improvements to their accuracy.

— Carolyn Ingram, British Internal School of Jeddah.

Words Matter

A classroom that promotes word consciousness is a classroom that supports learning about the world. It recognizes that the answer to modern information overload is equipping students to be effective communicators. It celebrates a unique and miraculous gift of the human mind–the ability to convert a series of hisses, pops, and explosions of sound into a tapestry of ideas. The marriage of technology and cognitive science promises to have a significant impact on the classroom – if effectively implemented. Membean can help.



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