Each week of the school year, my seventh-grade son brought home a list of twelve or so stems (i.e., roots and affixes). Students were tested weekly on these stems—the tests consisted of matching the stems to their meaning and writing words that included the stems (e.g., alg—nostalgia; blast—blastoderm; dendr—philodendron).

For more than half of the school year, my son did not study for his “stems” tests, and week after week he earned failing grades.

During the last quarter of the school year, I decided to get involved and help my son study. Within fifteen minutes of our focused practice, he had the stems and their definitions memorized. As a result, my son progressed from failure to success!

But honestly, what was the true outcome of this success? Several times while studying, my son asked me, “What’s the point of this, Mom? I just forget these stems after the test.” Reflecting on this question and my son’s year-long stem struggle, I found myself asking the same question. That reflection has led me to this answer:

Vocabulary acquisition must be authentic.

Students must learn vocabulary words in context.

The biggest struggle for my son was that the stems on his list were not used in context. My son, especially, needed this structure so that the stems were grounded in reality. With no real, authentic text to give the stems true meaning, they really served no purpose for my son. He had no actual reason to learn these stems, so he had no motivation to develop a true understanding of the words. Context is key.

Students must use vocabulary words in context.

To take it a step further, my son would have benefited from writing a sentence using words with the stems, providing a greater grounding in reality, a greater understanding of the meaning of the words, and a greater likelihood that he would remember or could apply his understanding of the words in the future. Providing opportunities for pairs of students to use the words orally in guided conversations would have allowed my son to use the words in an authentic way. Again, context is key.

Students must interact with vocabulary words

I learned early in my son’s education that he has to move. He is an active, energetic, social kid, so incorporating physical activity into his learning time engages the part of his brain that allows new learning to cement. He learned his spelling words as we tossed a football in the backyard. He completed grammar activities by taking active brain breaks (e.g., playing catch, jumping on the trampoline) during frequent breaks. He memorized science and social studies facts in chunks—learning a few facts and then engaging in movement.

Providing a variety of activities for students that incorporate diverse learning styles exponentially increases comprehension. Students (middle-school boys, especially) enjoy activities that allow them to get out of their desks and do something active while learning vocabulary, such as shooting a basketball when correct definitions are provided. Artistic students enjoy creating graffiti-style posters to show their understanding of words. Students who think spatially benefit from creating crossword puzzles using the vocabulary words.

Success is not earning one hundred percent on a matching test. Success is lifelong vocabulary acquisition that prepares students to comprehend complex academic and technical texts they will encounter in college and careers. My son, his classmates, and all students will experience true success when vocabulary lessons are context dependent and engaging.