In Marzano's Classroom Instruction That Works there is a section that explains how the use of visual representations of words help student recall them. This makes a lot of sense since it requires students to create a picture in their brain that is then attached to both the word and its definition.
The way I approach this in the classroom is to:
- Write the word on the board.
- Draw a picture of what the word reminds me of or means to me.
- Explain why I drew that picture.
At this point the students have a reasonable idea of the definition. They have also had a picture (poorly drawn of course) that represents both the word and its definition. Then the students are expected to:
- Create their own pictures which are not the same as what I drew. This requires them to use their own idea. This means they have two pictures that represents the word and its definition.
- Write their own definitions in their own words. Notice I do not write a definition for them to copy. The student either infers the definition from my explanation or they may look the definition up from another source. The important part here is for the student to make the definition "theirs" by using their own words, not copying.
This is a learning activity and needs to be addressed in that way. I explain to my students that learning their vocabulary takes effort. Copying definitions or matching words with definitions will not help them learn, they need time to reflect and create using the words.
Please note, I am taking a "grade" on this activity this year. While I would much prefer the students do this activity because they see the value, my school district requires two grades from each core class each week. I do not give grades for the students' "right or wrong" definitions. If they do the work (and it is very obvious if they do) they get "credit".
Where is the proof this works?
I have to fall back on anecdotal evidence to make my case here. I was extremely frustrated for a long time with some of my students lack of success with our standardized reading tests. Many of my ESL students had a very difficult time being successful remembering what the 5-8 vocabulary words they had to study.
At some point I stumbled upon the section in Classroom Instruction That Works that addressed learning vocabulary and I jumped on it. After implementing this new activity my students that historically scored poorly on the vocabulary portion of the reading tests immediately improved.
I did some "debriefing" of these students to see why they thought they were more successful. They attributed it to extra work they were doing with the drawing and defining. They felt (best word I have to describe it) that it worked for them. The only difference in the way vocabulary was approached in my class was through this activity, the students were still required to do the traditional worksheets they had been doing.
When I reflected on the activity I decided there were three possible reasons for the increased scores on the assessment:
- The new activity worked.
- Having to spend more time working with the words worked.
- A combination of extra time and the activity worked.
Since I wasn't writing a research paper, I decided that the reason this activity was successful didn't matter. The fact that it was successful was all the reason I needed to continue having my students use the technique.