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Morphemic Analysis as a Vocabulary Approach: Science or Art?

On 10/3/2014, my colleague Phil Sloan and I had the honor of co-presenting to The 2014 TYCA Midwest conference in Grand Rapids, MI. Our presentation was entitled Reconsidering Our Pedagogical Foundations: Sonic Literacy and Morphemic Analysis.

My half of the presentation was a cross-disciplinary work entitled Morphemic Analysis as a Vocabulary Approach: Science or Art? In the presentation, I drew on research from formal linguistics to argue that applying morphemic analysis to authentic texts is as much art as science. I also analyzed whether textbooks for developmental reading suggest to students that morphemic analysis should be applied artfully, or whether it is applied with a scientific precision.

I’ve posted the eight-page handout for that here:

Handout for Morphemic Analysis as a Vocabulary Approach: Science or Art? (PDF Document)

If you want to know even more about using morphemic analysis in your reading classroom, I see my literature review and annotated bibliography on the topic.

Morphological Analysis as a Vocabulary Strategy in Post-Secondary Reading: Literature Review and Annotated Bibliography

Just as a grammar governs the ordering of words in sentences and phrases, another sort of grammar governs the ways in which morphemes combine to form words.

How helpful is this morphological grammar to reading teachers? Developmental reading textbooks often teach students to infer word meaning from the parts of words, but what’s the pedagogical grounding for this? I recently wrote a literature review and annotated bibliography on exactly that topic:

Click here to see Morphological Analysis as a Vocabulary Strategy in Post-Secondary Reading: Literature Review and Annotated Bibliography (PDF Document)

And the Best Dictionary for our Students is…

When a young slave in Maryland named Frederick Douglass was covertly teaching himself to read and write, he wanted to find out the meaning of the word “abolition.” He writes, with dry sarcasm, that the “dictionary afforded me little or no help. I found that it was ‘the act of abolishing,’ but then I did not know what was to be abolished” (36).

Perhaps the dictionary’s white 19th century editors bleached this definition for political reasons, but we’ve all run into a similar frustration. Douglass’s anecdote points to the importance of every student of English having a good dictionary. But what exactly makes for a good dictionary for our students?

Do we really need so many choices in life?

In this post, I discuss how writing teachers can make a thoughtful, informed recommendation. I’m not going to shill for any particular dictionary; instead, I’ll lay out the steps to find the dictionary that fits the needs of a particular group of students.

When left to their own devices, I discovered that most of my students used Dictionary.com, but not for any good reason. They were drawn simply because that site was free and ranked atop the search results. This worried me, not just because Dictionary.com is over-run with tracking software, but also because it evinced unreflective thinking. After that, I began to recommend to students the same dictionary that I used, a popular collegiate dictionary.

One day, in a developmental writing class where students were reading an essay in small groups, I realized my recommendation was as unreflective as the students’ decision to go to Dictionary.com. I observed as all but the strongest students struggled to comprehend the dense language used in definitions of this collegiate dictionary.

The lesson: don’t assume that the dictionary that works for you works for your students.

Like bibles or credit cards, dictionaries are now niche-marketed in dizzying variety, so there’s clearly no one-size-fits-all recommendation. “Learner’s” of “basic” dictionaries are less comprehensive and use simplified prose in their definitions. These work well for ESL students and basic skills students. The more scholarly “collegiate” dictionaries include more complex prose in their definitions, more definitions of names and places, and more detailed etymological and usage notes. Visual dictionaries appeal to visually oriented students and children. To make things more complicated, publishers release the “same” dictionary in different bindings, print sizes, and levels of comprehensiveness—unabridged, abridged, and pocket. I even found a dictionary for fans of Garfield.

To know which to pick, you need to understand the needs of your students. You may even end up recommending different dictionaries to different students in the same class.

Once you have a sense of their needs, run the following experiment: peruse your assigned readings and compile a list of a dozen vocabulary words that you expect to challenge your students. Include a mix:

  • abstractions: “solipsism”
  • technical terms: “allele”
  • dated words: “sweetmeat”
  • biographical names: “William Lloyd Garrison”
  • loanwords: “manga”
  • neologisms: “blogroll”
  • phrases: “bury the hatchet”

Then go to the library/bookstore, and find several dictionaries that look like they might fit the needs of your students. For each word on your list, compare how each dictionary handles it (or whether it’s even included). This side-by-side comparison tells you infinitely more than the reviews on the web or the marketing blurbs on the cover.

What to Look for

When comparing, consider the following three criteria, listed in descending order of importance:

Frederick Douglass would be pleased with this definition. Your ESL students probably won’t, since they may struggle with the phrasal verb “do away with.” (From Webster’s New World Student’s Dictionary, 1996)

1. Complexity of Language Used in Definitions: this criterion is key. What is the reading level of your students? How dense is the language used to define words? Do the definitions contain difficult words or expressions? How complex is the syntax? Dense language often is briefer, but it frustrates students with modest vocabularies to begin with. You don’t want students looking up half the words in the definition.

2. Example Sentences: consider students’ learning styles. Some think more logically and literally. They tend to learn what a word means by reading the definition. Others learn more by example, through seeing how the word is used in a variety of sentences. Most students fall somewhere in between. For this reason, I prefer dictionaries that don’t just define the word well, but also show a diverse sampling of how it is used in actual English sentences.

This definition, which is geared towards ESL learners, provides definitions with simpler language than usual. (from Merriam Webster’s Essential Learner’s English Dictionary, 2010)

Furthermore, example sentences illustrate grammatical constructions in which vocabulary words tend to occur, and the affinity for one word to be used in combination with another. Knowing vocabulary means knowing not just what a word means, but also knowing its syntactic patterns. When students know both, they can more effectively use the word in their own writing.

For example, many students need to see that a word like “inseparable” is frequently followed by certain prepositions (“from”), but not others (“of” or “to”). Further, it frequently is found in collocation with nouns like “friends” or “pair”.  At the same time, nouns like “recommendation” are categorized as count nouns, which means they can be pluralized, while non-count nouns like “information” cannot be pluralized. Because these idiomatic tendencies bedevil ESL students, they especially benefit from seeing lots of example sentences.

3. Comprehensiveness: how many entries does the dictionary contain? Be careful. To calculate, some publishers play a mathematical trick. The cover will advertise that the dictionary contains something like 500 zillion words, but they gloss over their methodology of counting “jump,” “jumps,” “jumping,” “jumped,” and “jumper” as separate words. Some words, though, do legitimately have multiple entries, such as “bank,” which can mean the side of a river or the place you store money. Instead of comparing the number of words, compare the number of entries. If the cover doesn’t provide a count, you can estimate by counting the entries on a typical page, and multiply by the number of pages.

This Definition contains many examples that illustrate idiomatic syntax, but how many students really need these detailed etymological notes that fill this 8-pound dictionary? (from The New Oxford American Dictionary, 2001)

Comprehensiveness also refers to the level of detail in each entry. For each word, how many different senses are listed? Do definitions sound clipped, or leisurely and expansive? Extremely clipped definitions leave out the connotative nuances of meaning (consider the differences between “sarcastic,” “ironic,” and “sardonic”), and can frustrate students, just as Frederick Douglass was frustrated by the definition of “abolition.”

In the end, comprehensiveness is a trade-off. When a dictionary contains fewer entries, it’s quicker to find any given word, but it’s less likely to help students with obscure words and semantic nuances. At the same time, consider portability. If you require students to regularly bring their dictionary to class, do you want them lugging around a 10-pound tome?

What’s Less Important

Here are two criteria I’m less concerned with:

1. Being up-to-Date: the publishers of Merriam-Webster’s are notorious for launching a PR blitz when they release a new edition and add the latest neologisms, but for most purposes, students rarely need the latest-and-greatest. Obviously, a dictionary from the 1980’s is problematic, but most dictionaries still in print have been updated in the past decade.

Yes, new words are constantly being coined and meanings are constantly shifting, but we should resign ourselves to the fact that no print dictionary can keep up. Keep in mind, too, that most readings in popular anthologies predate the linguistic innovations of the past decade.  (In fact, a newer dictionary might be worse, since the editors have purged out antiquated words that might still appear in some older readings.) If students cannot find the occasional neologism in their dictionary, I just let them know that the internet will magically point them to the definition.

2. Pronunciation Guides: in an ideal world, these would help students learn acceptable pronunciations, and sound more articulate in class discussion. Unfortunately, I’ve found that most students have a hard time making sense of the phonetic symbols (which are unintuitive and inconsistent across different dictionaries). The pronunciation guides help more for showing students how a word breaks into syllables and which syllable to stress. Many electronic dictionaries now contain audio clips of the word being pronounced, which is far superior to phonetic symbols.

What about electronic and online dictionaries?

Over the next decade, the hard-copy dictionary will clearly be inching towards obsolescence, as smart-phones and tablet PCs become ubiquitous. Some e-book readers now even allow readers to see the definition of a word simply by clicking on it. Keep in mind, though, that electronic dictionaries are usually based off of some print dictionary. It’s still too soon to predict exactly where the technology is headed, but huge numbers of students are looking up words online, so we need to know how to guide them.

Generally speaking, electronic dictionaries have four primary advantages: they are extremely portable, their visual layout is less cramped, they better show how words are pronounced (with sound clips), and—most crucially—they look stuff up lightning fast. This minimizes the time students spend disrupting their process of reading comprehension by thumbing through the dictionary.

Are your students’ electronic dictionaries actually Trojan horses to introduce this into the classroom?

Now the one major drawback: internet-enabled devices seriously tempt students with distractions as they read. They open up the world of Facebook, text messaging, and other time-wasters. For this reason, I seldom allow students to use these in class. Further, for reasons of academic integrity, most teachers prohibit electronic devices during in-class exams.

Using the Dictionary Effectively

It doesn’t matter what dictionary students have if they use it ineffectively. If you’re teaching basic skills or developmental students, assume that many need to be taught how to use it effectively. For starters, they need to be reminded simply to have the dictionary on hand while doing assigned readings. Too often, students bluster through readings without the dictionary. Second, when students find a definition with multiple senses, they often just go with the first, even if it doesn’t fit the reading. Finally, students benefit from habitually annotating the definitions of words they look up into the margins of assigned readings, which helps reinforce their learning the meaning.

On the other hand, students need be shown the problem with using the dictionary to look up every single word they find slightly unfamiliar. Such constant running to the dictionary disrupts the fluency of their comprehension. Students are better off reading at a fluent pace with 90% comprehension, than at a choppy, tedious pace while striving for 100% comprehension. Before they turn to the dictionary, I encourage students to employ skills to infer meaning, like using context, breaking a word into roots, or sounding long words out. It’s surprising how often they can make an accurate guess at meaning without ever opening the dictionary.

Writing teachers: what dictionary do you recommend to your students and why? Send me a comment.