Three Textless Tips for Improving Vocabulary Retention
"I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand." Sometimes hearing a lecture from a teacher, or even defining new words from a glossary or dictionary, just isn't enough to make complex new terminology stick. These three textless (without writing words) strategies help get important terms or concepts across and embedded into long-term memory.
1. Draw it!
You've probably heard the phrase, "A picture is worth a thousand words," or some variation of it.
At the beginning of a new unit we often ask our students to write the definitions of new vocabulary words. Students turn to the back of their textbooks or a dictionary and write out the definitions. Twenty-four hours later, some may remember their meanings, but most probably do not.
Instead, have students read the definition, then draw a picture of what the word means to them. We are a highly visual species regardless of what language we speak; oftentimes generating a picture is all it takes to draw the information back from memory.
Warning: It takes longer to draw a picture than to copy a definition from a book. Why? Because to draw a symbolic representation of the word, the brain must understand the meaning and then use higher level thinking to create that visual. This more rigorous brain process often makes it easier to recall later.
2. Share it!
We also are a very social species. Ask students to read the definition of the word in the back of their books and then have them turn to their shoulder buddy and tell them what that word means to them. Have the shoulder buddy reciprocate and try this in multiple languages.
Warning: This makes for a temporarily loud classroom, but studies have shown that even repeating the word out loud increases the chances for retention by 10%. Sharing the personal meaning aloud with a friend is even better.
3. Get up and do it!
The most successful strategy I've used to remember complex new vocabulary involves students getting up and acting out the words or concepts while the rest of the class guesses the word.
Give out the words secretly and give the students time to create their portrayal—no words, please, only pantomime. They may need to work with a partner.
Have students record their guesses along the way. It helps to have a list of the words and their definitions handy for reference—the more processing their brains do to consider alternatives, the more likely they are to remember the words. (And don't forget small prizes for those who guess correctly.)
Time Tip: Some of these activities can be assigned as homework to help save instructional time in the classroom.
Rebecca Shore is an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. E-mail: Rshore6@uncc.edu