Thoughts on Knowing a Word

© Robert A. Buckmaster 2020

We can say we ‘know someone’, and that includes a range of relationships but it does imply a meeting at some stage.

We can’t say we ‘know’ someone we have never met. Knowing though can be qualified in different ways: I know him well; I hardly know her.

We can also know of someone; and know who someone is even if we haven’t met him. I know who the Queen of England is; I’ve even seen her from about 5 metres away but I’ve never been introduced, so I ‘don’t know’ her.

I once shook Prince Charles’ hand and exchanged a few words with him (explaining what I do), so I do ‘know’ him, but very, very, very slightly.

I’ve seen Gorge Bush Senior and Al Gore in the flesh, and I’ve seen Donald Trump on TV (I know who they are; I know of them) but I’ve shaken hands with Tony Blair – so I’ve met him, I know him, but even less slightly than I know Prince Charles.

Knowing a Word

Having name-dropped enough names so you understand I sometimes meet important people, let’s move on to consider knowing a word.

In an important way ‘knowing’ a word (or a verb structure etc. as these are after all single words or combinations of words) is not a binary ‘I know or don’t know a word’ state.

There are degrees of knowing, and these graduations are an important consideration for us as teachers, and for our learners.

There are:

  1. Words I don’t know: words I have never encountered in any way, or even heard of rumours that they exist.
  2. Words I have met briefly – I recognize them as I have seen them somewhere before. They are faces in the crowd which I recognize. I don’t know anything about these words but I do know they exist.
  3. Words I have been formally introduced to, but which I still know very little about. I might know something about their meaning and how to say them but I might be hazy about these aspects.
  4. Words which I am in the process of getting to know. I’m learning more about them, their (full) meaning where and when they are used (their colligations) and which words are their friends (their collocations). I am getting used to hearing and seeing these words in different contexts and I try (occasionally at first and then with more frequency) to use these words myself in my speech and writing. This process of deepening my knowledge about these words might lead to stage 5, or 5 and 6 below, or I might be forever stuck in this learning-about stage.
  5. Words which I know well, and which, when I see or hear them, I fully understand their meaning and import. But this kind of knowing is not the ultimate knowing; it is a reactive knowing – other people use the word and I know what they mean.
  6. Words which I know well and I understand their meaning and import and I can easily recall them from my memory and use them in my speech or writing. This is the acid test of knowing: being able to remember the words and use them at will. Knowing words well, though, is not necessarily knowing them completely. Some words can be fully understood and learnt as they have a single meaning and are used in restricted situations and with limited collocations. Other words may have multiple meanings, may be used in many contexts and have a huge number of collocations; it is unlikely that these words will be fully learned, but the student will develop an operational effectiveness in their use of these words. The words will still have secrets which might or might not be discovered but the students will know them well enough to be able to use them as required.

The Six Levels of Knowing

We can summarise these 6 levels of word knowledge as:

• Words I don’t know.
• Words I have seen but don’t know anything about.
• Words I have just met.
• Words I am getting to know.
• Words I understand but do not use myself.
• Words I know: I use these words.

Learning a Word

Learning a word is a process which requires repeated exposure to the word in a variety of contexts, and understanding from us as teachers that it is a process with stops and starts and backslides, and leaps forward. We need to provide a lot of opportunities for meaningful practice.

The real test of truly knowing a word is being able to remember it (and its meanings, colligations and collocations). We also need to be able to recall it quickly. And we need to be able to use it successfully. If you truly know a word you can efficiently and accurately recall it and deploy it without (major) errors.

Indeed, if a word is ‘on the tip of your tongue’ and you can’t recall it, it has slipped from Stage 6 to 4, but a fatally compromised Stage 4 as you cannot actually remember the word – you may remember the meaning, the use, the colligations and collocations but not the actual word itself. At the moment of forgetting you no longer ‘know’ the word in any meaningful way. When (if) you remember the word again then you regain your knowing of the word.

Distributed Repetition

All this means that we need to build in distributed repetition into our teaching programmes so that the students meet words repeatedly over time and have to remember them again and again, each time building up, reinforcing, strengthening their memory of the words.

The repetition is distributed as it extends over time with longer and longer gaps between repetitions over time.

Thus, after a word has been introduced in a lesson it needs to be revised immediately afterwards (the next morning for example: give morning homework tasks rather than evening homework tasks), and then a few days later, then a few days more later, then a couple of weeks after that , and then a month after that; unless there is a failure of recall when, in that case, the sequence starts from the beginning again with immediate practice.

Memory and Recall

Words (and their meanings, colligations and collocations) don’t commit themselves to someone’s memory.

The students have to work on learning words and we need to provide them with opportunities to do so. Students need to both repeatedly see the word in meaningful contexts (and hear it, to decode it from the stream of speech), and most importantly remember it and produce it in speech and writing.

By remembering and producing a word the students make their memory of it stronger and deeper.

On Testing Word Knowledge

As ways of testing go, a cloze test (a very common task) is less than ideal because the colligations and collocations are provided for the test taker in the test – the co-text provided is an aide to recall – it is a half-test of knowing – you are testing Stage 5.

A true test (of Stage 6) is spontaneous use in a wholly novel utterance, or sentence (better paragraph), where the test taker has to create a complete co-textualized example of the word in use.

Any test which utilises ‘other people’s’ language (gap fills of any description, reading and listening tests of any kind, multiple choice items etc.) is a test of Stage 5 (or even Stage 4) knowing.

We cannot say a student really knows a word until they can demonstrate Stage 6 production of the word in a stretch of original discourse through spoken or written test.

In Conclusion

So, a student needs to be introduced to (or notice) a word, then start the process of learning it (and its meaning, pronunciation, collocation, colligations), with extended distributed repetition (to commit it to memory), and we should test them on their ability to recall the word (and its collocations etc.) quickly and without errors and use it in spoken or written language.