Vocabulary in Context

As we looked at the last data collection of student vocabulary, we were a bit suprised that some words had lower correct responses than we expected. So we decided to do a little educational research and what we discovered really didn’t suprise us: Isolated Words Have Less Meaning.

Afterall, this SLO of measuring growth in vocabulary simply asked students to translation the word from L2 to L1. The words in L2 were completely isolated. To give some background: I don’t give vocabulary lists. I don’t teach vocabulary. They don’t take vocabulary quizzes. In fact, I have this sign posted in my classroom:
Picking up word meanings by reading is 10 times faster than intensive vocabulary instructionI constantly have conversations with my students about acquiring the language versus studying the language.

Sooooo…… my students did not see words in isolation in my class. They inferred meaning of words through context. They understood language through messages. They read with the intent to understand. So it came as no suprise to me the results of my little “research study”.

I took the most commonly missed words and then put those words in sentences for students to pick out the meaning. Out of the top 32 most frequently missed words in May, 576 correct answers were given by students, 18 correct answers per word. When these same words were given in CONTEXT, 1159 correct answers were given, doubling the amount to 36 answers per word. Words in context are more meaningful to us than a random word/list.

For example, 2% of students correctly translated “contesta” as “answers”, but given the sentence “Esperanza contesta el teléfono” that numbered increased to 55%.

Some notes: These were automatically graded by Google Quizzes. That means that any spelling error would be marked as incorrect. The student answer had to perfectly match the correct answer.
In the original vocabulary word translation, if the verb form was 3rd person singular, the students could answer in multiple ways. For example, “contesta” could be “he answers”, “she answers” or “he/she answers”. Some students may have applied this strategy to the words in context quiz, however, in the sentence “Esperanza contesta el teléfono” the only answer would be “answers” since a subject is in the sentence. So while the student may have UNDERSTOOD the meaning, they still may have been marked incorrect.

Here’s the full list:
Vocabulary Words used in context
One thing that is curious to me is the decrease in the accuracy of the past tense words, such as quería, tenía, and fui. We used these mostly in the third person during stories in class, so they would be accurate to translate “quería” as “he/she wanted”, but in the context here, it was the “yo” form, so if they saw quería and recalled the 3rd person meaning, it would be incorrect based on the context.

So, if we can agree that words have MORE meaning when used in context, how do we apply that to our classes and HOW does that impact the use of vocabulary lists and/or vocabulary assessment? Would love to hear your thoughts and discussion in the comment section!

About SpanishPlans

Spanish Educator, with focus on acquisition Educator Enthusiast I love learning about and sharing culture.
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4 Responses to Vocabulary in Context

  1. KD says:

    They inferred meaning of words through context… Yes!!!
    When my students have to write a substantial essay on a particular topic, I ask them to create a word list of new or especially relevant words. I also ask that they create a sentence with those new words. Using a word within context markedly increases retention.
    Good job on his research compilation!

  2. Annie says:

    Very interesting! I’d be interested in using a similar assessment in my own classroom.

    Were any of the definitions assessed with multiple choice or were they all short answers? Did students have to translate the word into English or could they use Spanish to define the words?

  3. Very insightful post here. I understand that you are saying that presenting vocab words in list format, in isolation, is not an effective way to learn vocabulary, and I totally see that. I’d like to ask if you feel, however, that it is useful to have specifically targeted vocabulary that revolves around a certain theme, for any given unit. For example, do you ever do a unit on “getting around the city”, or “outdoor experiences”, or “houses” that have thematic vocab to be learned, but you just present the vocab in context – perhaps even TPRS style (short funny stories, PQA, etc)?

    This is one area in which I find TPRS to be weak: Once students have got “tenia”, “queria”, and “se fue” down pat, they can’t actually think of anything that someone had, can’t state anything they wanted, and don’t know any location vocab to be able to state where someone went. Seems like this is a downside to TPRS.

    This is why I still believe in having at least some thematic units throughout the year interspersed with more general “Let’s read this short novel” type of units. You gotta give students some building blocks, some vocabulary to work with. But I will agree with you that it needs to be presented in context.

    Would love to hear your response!

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