Traditional vocabulary instruction holds that students learn new words best when they learn them in context. Our "Teachers at Work" contributor Shannon Reed made the startling classroom discovery that context isn't always key.

You know the old Neil Diamond hit "I'm a Believer," right? Yes, it was also performed by the Monkees, if you are someone who chooses to acknowledge the existence of the Monkees. Anyway, here's my classroom version as of late:

I thought vocab was best taught in context
Seems the more words around it, the more my kids got
But vocab was out to get me (da doo da da)
That's the way it seemed
One meaning was what got stuck in the kids' heads
Then I tried out-of-context vocab!
Now I'm a believer!
The kids know many usages!
Not just one!

I'll stop there, before the Mr. Diamond's lawyers contact me... but I hope that this horrific little ditty serves as an introduction to this month's column. Yes, friends, I've become a believer in something I truly never thought I'd believe: namely, the concept that teaching vocab words out of a literary context can be just as empowering (and successful) for students as in-context vocabulary. Here's how I became a believer.

The Same Old Song

The concept that students best acquire and learn to use new vocabulary words in context dates so far back for me in my educational training that I no longer remember either learning it, nor a time when I didn't think it was correct. It makes perfect sense. We know that students who read frequently have higher levels of literacy and larger vocabularies. We also know that being able to recite a list of words and their definitions means nothing if student can't properly use the same words in a sentence with fluidity. Plus, many of us expand our vocabularies at a brisk rate by reading. I know that I rarely hear someone use a word that's new to me in conversation, but I am still stumbling upon words that are unfamiliar as I read, and that I learned the vast majority of words in my vocabulary from reading. All of these core ideas lead to a simple conclusion – students learn vocabulary best from reading words in context.

I'm not disagreeing. This way of teaching vocabulary is instinctive and wonderful for students who read. Yet as all teachers know (even as it shocks other adults), some students don't read, especially at their grade level or near it. One reason I've frequently heard to explain why they don't read is that it's dull or hard. Yep, come to think of it, repeatedly running your eyes over a bunch of words you don't understand is indeed dull. And hard.

So, in conjunction with my colleagues on the 11th Grade Team at my school, I began to think about how to make the acquisition of academic vocabulary more enjoyable for my students. Before long, I wondered what it would be like to switch the the process – instead of reading something with my students and pulling out the vocabulary words from it, what if I chose some higher-level vocabulary words, teach them, and let them discover the same words while reading? Although I did fear that somehow word would leak out to one of my education professors, who would no doubt swing by my school for a little hand-slapping, I decided it was worth a shot. Especially when no one could come up with a  reason not to, and statistics were showing that our students needed some kind of intervention in academic vocabulary, stat.

Once, Twice, Three Times a Vocab Word

Well, clearly, it worked, or I wouldn't be here writing this. You don't see columns from me on how badly my lesson on figurative language went, do you? (Aside: Said lesson ended with the immortal sentence "Never mind, I will try to teach you this again later. Maybe.") Yep, my students sure did acquire new words into their vocabulary. More on that in a minute.

First, though, let me highlight how we did this. I decided that five new vocab words a week was a sufficient, but not overwhelming, challenge. I chose my words from an up-to-date SAT test prep list, trying to focus on those that I felt actually were used with some regularity. Hence, yes to fiasco, no to malevolent. (People who love the word malevolent, please do not post angry ripostes on this page! Yes, it is a good word and I like it... but I don't think it's a triage word, since I myself didn't know what it meant until well after high school.)

Next, I arranged my "Do Nows" so that the kids were interacting with the words each day of a week. (Non-teachers, "Do Nows" is a vaguely militaristic term for opening activities that students complete in the first 5 minutes of class – I privately call them the "Sit Downs and Shut Ups.") On Day 1, they got a practice multiple-choice quiz in which the words were used in a sentence and they had to select the correct meaning. Dictionaries were provided for those who chose to use them. We went over these (and I added any additional information, such as a heads-up that the word clique was indeed an exclusive group but also had negative connotation). On Day 2, they had to try to use each word in a sentence which we then went over. On Day 3, they used the words in sentences and I collected them (returning them with suggestions and clarifications the next day). Day 4, a favorite, brought "Illustrate Your Vocab Word Day," a big hit with my visual learners (and a delight for the rest of us to see how they illustrated insurgents or perplexed... some of these sketches are little masterpieces and were put up on my classroom wall). And on Day 5, they took a quiz, which required them to use each word in a sentence correctly. Every four weeks, we took a major test on all 20 words that had been covered, spending a few days beforehand reviewing the words. I also highly encouraged student-led learning, asking, for example, if anyone had a strategy for remembering how to use a particularly tricky word.

One unanticipated nice thing that happened was that most of my students could memorize five words in five days, and thus we had, for the first time, days in which every single student got an A or a B on a quiz. This was genuine learning, not coddling, and it was a big thrill for everyone when I got to call out the names of the entire class instead of just a few students as part of my Roster of Champions High Grade Announcements.

We Could Work It Out

The best part of this style of teaching vocabulary is that, without my explicit instruction, my students felt empowered to use the words they had learned. I think that this is because, instead of associating a word with a particular piece of literature (often something that they had struggled to understand), the kids were more likely to see words as tools, building blocks to use in making their own sentences and paragraphs. Plus, vocabulary words are small and easy. In a world (e.g., school) in which the questions and concepts are often big (e.g., "What are you going to do with your life?"), it must feel nice to master a bite-sized piece of information and use it.

It's worth noting that I had noticed this on a field trip. The teaching artist running a workshop with my kids had given them a script to read with the word presume in it and, when it was clear that they didn't get it, had briefly defined the word for them. Within days, the word presume came up in class several times, in a way that none of my carefully-harvested-from-literature words had. I waited to see if this phenomenon would play out again.

Almost immediately, I saw the vocabulary words begin to appear in their writing. One of the first words was ambivalent and suddenly, everyone felt ambivalent about everything – the Regents, their mom's insistence that they watch their siblings, Ms. Reed's choice of clothing. Another word was diminutive and the next thing I knew, I was being told not to bother starting a new chapter, as we only had a diminutive amount of time left in class. Vocab words appeared on Facebook pages ("U R an Insurgent! Lolz!") and in thank you notes, leaving me to have to explain to a friend who had given my kids a special workshop as to why the word cryptic appeared so often in his thank yous (and also why his show was described as "not a fiasco"). An administrator stopped by to ask if the kids had just learned the word inimitable because he had heard a group of them arguing about how to pronounce it as they walked down the hall.

We all loved this. Sure, the students' mistakes make for good faculty lounge howlers. More than that, though, the teachers and administrators thrilled to hear students enjoying learning and grappling with new information. Most of us embroiled in public school education in high-need areas have come to realize that genuine enthusiasm about learning from students is infrequently expressed. Yet here it was, bubbling through the hallways. Completely without intending to, I had hit upon something good.

More Than Just Words

Because, of course, as anyone who loves the Visual Thesaurus knows, words are never just words. They hint, coax, signify and point out. They create worlds, delineate character, evoke emotions, encourage response. They are little tools of power – who doesn't love that feeling of knowing just the right word at the right moment? Paired with our delivery, spoken words help us make ourselves clear. Written carefully, words connect us with thousands of people, most of whom we'll never know. There are times when words aren't necessary or wanted, of course. But for my students, words may be, or at least help create, their path out of a life of poverty and into a life of meaningful work and relative affluence.

Thus, I'm glad to have learned that what is the standard way of teaching is not the only way. I'll continue to teach words in literary context (we just had a vigorous conversation about the word unobtrusively, learnt from reading Our Town in class), but I'll also embrace this new-to-me, old-to-education method of words out of literary context. It's not cryptic, I don't feel ambivalent about it, and my students agree that this unit has been a zenith of our year!