Vocabulary lesson plans gain from broader learning focus

Lesson plans for teaching vocabulary to students in the early grades routinely use word-picture associations.  Using such associations teachers can present reading concepts such as how the letter combination a + n becomes imbedded in words such as can, fan, and pan.

The strength of word-picture associations can be so strong that they interfere with students developing more sophisticated understanding of vocabulary later.  Let me illustrate.

Vocabulary lesson at the checkout

photo of tower fan
Could this be a fan?

I was in K-mart one afternoon last summer buying a replacement for my late, lamented tower fan. The cash register in the only open checkout line was operated by a pleasant young man. As there were no other shoppers for him to wait on, we fell into conversation.

“I’m going to be an engineer, ” he said as he handed me the fan.  “I know how air conditioners work. I hope I’ll learn how one of these works.”

I said, “It’s a fan.”

He smiled at my ignorance of engineering.

“Fans,” he said, “are round.”

Rather than debate the point, I asked him if he had ever seen photographs of Japanese geishas with fans.

He had.

I asked him if the fans were round.

They were not.

I asked if he’d ever seen a movie mystery where the police were told to fan out to look for evidence.

He liked those movies.

I asked him whether when the police fanned out they went around in circles.

They did not.

Then I asked him if he’d ever built a campfire.

His family did a lot of camping, so he knew how to build campfires.

I asked if he sometimes had to fan the fire to make it burn.

He did.

“When you fan a fire, do you make circular motions?”

By that time,  I had the budding engineer’s full attention. He realized there was something missing in his understanding of a vocabulary word he’d learned in his Sesame Street years.

In a few sentences, I explained what each of those uses of fan had in common. He could see a general shape and movement were involved in each of the uses of fan.

And he was excited to learn that were he to take my tower fan apart, he would find the blade mechanism bears a striking resemblance to some engineering designs for marine current turbines.

Implications for vocabulary lesson plans

I know that elementary teachers don’t have time to discuss all possible uses of words like fan, can, and pan in a vocabulary lesson. That’s not feasible or necessary.For long-term learning, however, whenever teachers can build into their lesson plans multiple images suggesting different ways vocabulary words can be used—a frying pan, pan for gold, a pan shot in video—they will greatly enhance students’ learning.