Tuesday, March 26, 2013

An Experience is Worth a Thousand Words

We again welcome Dr. Ebner to discuss the reseach underlying VocabSlam. Today she talks about learning using all of your senses.

An Experience is Worth a Thousand Words

By Rachel Ebner, Ph.D.

To truly learn a word, you’ve got to experience it.  This is called “experiential learning,” and it involves deriving meaning from direct, multisensory experiences. It’s one of the most powerful forms of learning. It goes beyond just passively absorbing information (known as “surface-level learning”).  Instead, experiential learning requires a student to actively internalize knowledge (this is known as “deep-level learning”).

Educators have not paid much attention to how important experiential learning is for helping high school and college students expand their vocabularies. This is surprising, especially since it’s widely known that young children rapidly acquire their first words through the direct experience of hearing words paired with what they see and do every day—a process called “fast mapping.” Through this type of direct multidimensional experiences with words, young children eventually develop comprehensive knowledge about a word’s meanings and uses within particular contexts.  This form of word learning is so powerful because it transforms a word from an abstract sound or written symbol into something that is meaningful and concrete.

Unfortunately, rather than pursuing experiential word learning, most older students’ vocabulary acquisition tends to entail passive forms of word learning such as memorizing dictionary definitions.  Learning vocabulary in this one-dimensional way (i.e., only by reading a word’s definition) not only is artificial, but also often is frustrating and ineffective.  With this type of passive learning, a word remains relatively abstract. No matter how many words, or which words or combination of words, are used to define a word, meaningful vocabulary development will not occur if a student doesn’t have opportunities to experience what the word represents though their multiple senses (seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, etc.) For example, I once had a student from Brazil who told me that before she came to America, everyone kept raving about American cupcakes, something that was not available to her in Brazil.  She said that no matter how times or ways her fellow friends tried to describe to her what an American cupcake was like, including how it looked, smelled, and tasted, she just “never got it!”  It was not until she came to America and experienced firsthand the look, smell, texture, and taste of her first cupcake, that she finally “got it.”

Just like my Brazilian student, and as with young children, to truly know a word, you must interact with it by engaging your multiple senses. In other words, memorizing a thousand written words in a dictionary cannot replace the deep learning that comes from truly experiencing a single word!

About the author: Dr. Rachel Ebner is an expert on student learning. She has an M.A. from Columbia Teachers College, an Ed.M. from Harvard, and a doctorate from the City University of New York.  Dr. Ebner brings her research cred to VocabSlam and will explain the research behind what we're doing.

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