Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day…

…For Teaching ELL, ESL, & EFL

Help Me Understand The Significance Of This New Study That “Finds Sudden Insights Key to Learning Words”


Study Finds Sudden Insights Key to Learning Words is the headline of an Ed Week article that appeared today, and I’m trying to figure out if it’s significant and, if so, why?

I had a difficult time really understanding what the researchers were trying to say. It appears to me they’re saying that new words are best acquired when they’re heard in context. So, in the ESL context, flashcards with individual vocabulary words are less effective than learning words in sentences with visual support.

If that’s what the study is saying, I don’t really understand what the big deal is — most teachers know this already.

However, I freely admit I may be missing the point of the study entirely. Help me out here — is my interpretation accurate? If not, what is the accurate way to interpret and apply this study in the classroom?

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.


  1. I read it. I’m in the same boat you are.

  2. Larry,

    A lot I could say but just wanted to add a caution above all.

    I find so so so many teachers and even researchers/academics, applying finding in the field of language development to SLA. We really have to be cautious doing this and there are major factors/reasons why.

    That’s my caveat regarding this article.

  3. I do agree as well that caution is needed as these are studies about how words are learned in particular (sometimes natural) settings and we are trying to derive a way of ‘teaching’ from them and the two questions are not the same. However, if you stay away from the reporters initial interpretation and read the actual study descriptions I think it’s clearer that this is about how learners are forming an initial guess or hunch about word meaning which may be wrong rather than using all the evidence from every context and use of a word. These initial hunches may then get corrected as new evidence proves them wrong but they appear to be very powerful and work well for concrete words but not so well for abstract. I think it may give teachers an insight into the need for clear ways to be sure learners truly understand more subtle word meanings and be sure to check in regarding word meanings ww ‘think’ they know but are still using their ‘best guess’ hope his helps, the fields of study are still too far apart though to draw good ‘teaching’ conclusions as this is about learning

  4. Okay. You got me. I never respond to blogs, but this is an article that had me wondering how it got published. Maybe I needed a little more background knowledge as to what they were saying.

    How do I supply the circumstances for the “ah-ha” moment? By using flash cards with visuals, using the word in context verbally, then in written phrases/books — and then the student connects the word with the meaning — is that the “ah-ha” moment? Or is it saying the student looks at the situation/object, guesses what it is called and then confirms it in later instances. If it is not proven to be incorrect, then the student has internalized the vocabulary word — and at that moment it is an “ah-ha”? I expect an “ah-ha” moment to be more … in the moment, more spontaneous.

    I think my way might be faster in the long run.

  5. It is a generalized article, to be sure. I think its intent is to underline the value of the intrinsic, gut-feeling of knowing the meaning of a new word, rather than knowing a word in isolation. It brings me back to the ‘vintage,’ key understanding by all teachers, that the more exposure to our rich language that we give to our students, the better off they will be. This includes our children in the isolated hills of Appalachia to the ones living in the apartments above the coffee shops in Seattle. Vocabulary study can’t be dismissed by an article that simply skims the surface of what we already know–building vocabulary begins with exposure to our language and continues with many extrinsic activities for building it as well.


  6. Reminds me of the Vocabulary Their Way approach. When the word/root is tied to an interesting story, concept, or something humorous or shocking, learning is easier for the student and goes to long term memory. I can see both advantages and drawbacks. But I am also reminded of a friend whose doctor left her alone in the exam room with her chart. She tiptoed over and guiltily read it and found a word she didn’t know describing her condition. She made a note of it and looked it up once she got home. She was shocked to find out the meaning, but permanently learned the word obese in one exposure– not the multiple exposures some say are needed to acquire new words.

  7. I think that the study has merits in trying to figure out the best way to learn new words, operative word being learning. If learning is taken to mean as remembering and (correct) transferability to other context then contextual learning in the first place makes sense.

    I’m an ESL who has tried to learn a few other languages such as French and Spanish. In all these, I “learn” or hear about new words on presentation. I really “learn” the words when immersed in a relevant situation, i.e. context, multiple would be great to learn nuances.

    I also teach maths, arguably similar to learning a new language. I could flash words in front of students all I want but if I really want them to learn a new word or meaning, I’ll use it in context. Imagine for example the word right (as in correct, right-handedness, privilege – human rights, and 90 degree angle); the other angles are not wrong because they are not right. If the students only ever learned one meaning of right, they will struggle to learn its new meaning – I think this is what the study is hoping to show.

    Apropos, I’m heavy on literacy matters in maths. As an ESL, I know first-hand what it means to learn a new language.

  8. I must also add, still on the example of the word right that the study is trying to show that the more ingrained the initial understanding is, the harder it is to learn something new. So, if students only ever learn 1 meaning of the word right, they will struggle more remembering it for right angle. Whereas, if they were exposed to other meanings (contexts) of the word, they’re more likely to accept new meanings (contexts).

    This is the real challenge of teaching and learning a new language. It’s not just about increasing vocabulary but really to understand the nuances.

    I think this was what the study was trying to show.

    Of course, I could be wrong in my interpretation, too.

Leave a Reply to David Cancel reply

Required fields are marked *.

Skip to toolbar