As we looked at the last data collection of student vocabulary, we were a bit surprised 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 surprise 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:
I 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 the meaning of words through context. They understood language through messages. They read with the intent to understand. So it came as no surprise 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:
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!