My  previous blog stressed  the importance of vocabulary acquisition and called for a return of intentional vocabulary study.  One of the key indicators of students’ success in school, on standardized tests, and indeed, in life, is their vocabulary.  The focus of this article is to explain one method of teaching vocabulary that can also engage students and even foster creativity.  

For many years, the traditional practice for acquiring new words was to look up the definitions in the dictionary. However, according to research at the University of Virginia, that is the worst instructional practice for vocabulary instruction.  Aside from being boring, dictionary diving does little to provide context for the new words. 

Simply providing definitions does not generally build strong enough word knowledge to improve comprehension; effective vocabulary teaching goes beyond verbal definitions and context use (Nagy, 1988). To enhance vocabulary development, many students need nontraditional instruction.  These  techniques incorporate the senses. They provide a holistic approach to learning and understanding vocabulary words and can include visualizing, mind mapping, music, root analysis, personalized lists, and context clues. 

One strategy that I’ve found effective with secondary level students utilizes imagery. This technique is a component of “active learning.” (For a broader discussion of active learning, click.)

Studies have found an important connection between visual vocabulary learning strategies and higher-order comprehension, specifically “in learning word meaning and in making better predictions and inferences” (Center, Freeman, Robertson, & Outhred, 1999). Additionally, visual imagery has been shown to improve short and long-term memory for word meaning and retrieval (Vesely & Gryder, 2007).

A Harvard study proposed that people created visual images to accompany their inner speech, suggesting that visual thinking is deeply ingrained in the brain.   The “imaging” technique utilizes the brain’s tendency for vocabulary acquisition by visual mnemonics. The  introduction of one vocabulary study series, (Vocabulary Cartoons) explains the process.  “Most words we use to communicate do not make pictures, In that case, we find substitute words that do make pictures and use them for words that do not.”  

 It is certainly more engaging and fun than using a dictionary. Here is the basic “imaging” technique. 

  1. Provide the word, its pronunciation, and definition: friable–brittle or breakable
  2. Find a word or group of words that sounds like the new word (rhyme, cognate, beginning sound) of the vocabulary word, e.g. sounds like Fry-a- bull.
  3. Create a funny or bizarre image that links the definition, sound and meaning-e.g. Picture a cartoon little glass bull jumping up and down on a hot surface and breaking apart because it’s brittle.  The more bizarre the image, the easier it will be to recall.
  4. When the student hears or sees the word, the image and its link come to mind, usually  without effort.  

Once the students learn the procedure, they can add their own images and links, thus fostering creativity.  It’s certainly more fun than looking up the words in a dictionary!


Laura Maniglia