We Acquire Vocabulary From Context


“Classic” TPRS ensured transparency by insisting on translation. It has been argued that simply relying on context is dangerous because students might get the wrong meaning.

The same concern has come up in reading theory: how do we know that readers are arriving at the correct meaning of an unfamiliar word – some contexts are “deceptive” or “misleading.” But: (1) most contexts are not deceptive. Beck, McKeown and McClaslin, (1983) examined contexts in basal readings: 61% providing at least some clues to the meanings of unfamiliar words, 31% were of no help, and only 8% were “misdirective.” (2) We don’t expect full acquisition of a meaning of a word from one exposure; rather, meaning is built up gradually, a little at a time, as we see the word again and again and test” studies discussed in Krashen, 2004, and discussion in Krashen, 2013a.). (3) Acquiring vocabulary from context is the way we have acquired nearly all of our vocabulary. When we consider the thousands of words we know, in L1 or L2, very few were defined or translated for us.



38 thoughts on “We Acquire Vocabulary From Context”

  1. Alisa Shapiro-Rosenberg

    I’m nodding vigorously, but in the beginning (novices) the high transparency keeps the filter down & builds confidence. When I take a Romanian or Mandarin demo, I want transparency, dammit!
    Though I’ve never taken a demo with NT for beginners, ‘cept for when I watch your/Tina’s French NT videos, and those work beautifully!

    So maybe the scaffolding has been abused or over-used, and by continuing the practice of constant translation/comprehension checking, etc, we enable/create need for rather than wean our Ss away from translation.

    To my mind, if we’re doing it right, as our kids acquire more and more, and the processor accelerates, allowing more and faster processing (cuz the foundation has been established) they also acquire better context skills and more confidence. I glean from all the experts that we want to build these skills twd independence by: immersing kids in compelling and linguistically rich language, and insuring that it’s comprehensible. Oh yeah and reading.
    Regarding the research cited above, in my teacher life I do see plenty of guessing and miscuing in reading when the text is not generated by an oral/aural story first. So in the easiest novels, I’m still surprised to find kids not getting the seemingly simplest passages, unless we built a scene or story using that language first. It’s not that the book is too hard; most of the Ss are getting it. It’s that some kids aren’t, and everyone benefits from the ‘preview’ of using that language before they see it in the novel.

    1. I’m so glad I took all that video. One day I will be able to go back and analyze the beginning the year videos and see if what I did seems like it was setting up the current success I am feeling.

          1. Where do you get your story listening stories? Would they be appropriate for high school students as well?

          2. From various places online. I modify them. Beniko just sent ben and me a copy of a book of tales she modified. They’re in English though. I like getting them in French or Spanish. So I can see the original vocab. It gives me ideas of words to use.

      1. Tina said:

        …the current success I am feeling….

        Full disclosure: Tina and I were not feeling much succes w TPRS/CI for years and years and years. But now we are. It all hinges on targets. Go find her vids and see. Most of my vids are sitting on my computer in a 2TB external drive, but they will be mined for what they offer and shared here as well as time allows. Tina’s style is more direct – she films every single class she does this year and puts it online.

        1. Well Ben I was feeling as much success as I thought possible. For me anyways, it is only in looking back that it feels hollow and like it was a balancing act on a greased tightrope above a pit of sharks with freakin laser beams strapped to their heads, with no net. In front of a desultory audience of teenagers inwardly cheering for me to fall. That’s how it seems now. Back then it seemed like the Best Thing Going.

    2. Alisa I’ll respond. You wrote
      “I’m nodding vigorously, but in the beginning (novices) the high transparency keeps the filter down & builds confidence. When I take a Romanian or Mandarin demo, I want transparency, dammit!”

      To me transparency is: This “__word___” means “_______” in your lingua franca or L1. We cannot be too sure that novices necessarily need high transparency. There can be noise. I use this kind of transparency for about the first month maybe even less. Afterwards, I just go slow. The common high frequency words that I use in class become the glue that hold everything else. The students know these from multiple contexts and uses. As teachers, our pursuit for transparency should be distinguished from our right brain analytic thinking. We want to focus on form as individual words all the time.

      I was never a grammar person at heart. I mastered some concepts and when I went to France, I never knew how to apply them. My tolerance for noise was high when I made friends who tried to understand my French. This lowered my own AF. Lastly, Krashen mentions that when something is compelling, your tolerance for noise is much higher. My daughter watches cartoons in French without knowing every single word. She later asks me what ___ means because it is important to the story or major events. Maybe where the input is coming from and how (the quality) of input is provided are important. Relationships are important. Some of my gifted students are the worst because they have to be patient with themselves for their own acquisition , they want to memorize everything and their afraid to be wrong. I’ve seen a drop in using the stop signal.

      “So maybe the scaffolding has been abused or over-used, and by continuing the practice of constant translation/comprehension checking, etc, we enable/create need for rather than wean our Ss away from translation.”

      Comp checks ruin flow. Translations, I feel are necessary for abstract words. For concrete words, we can use drawing in SL. We can even have props. I had a box in class for a matava script a while back. I have a French 2 student who still uses his stop signal when he gets lost. So I just write the translation for him. I am not sure he needs weaning. We can use drawings, props etc… but sometimes translation just works. Also, we need to ask ourselves “how important is this word to the story or message?”

      Just my two cents.

      1. …When I take a Romanian or Mandarin demo, I want transparency, dammit!”….

        Right on, Professor Ordiano, Right on. Totally agree. Nothing would piss me off more than being a total novice in a language and be in the dark after the first ten minutes of CI. This point needs to be made!

        1. You actually want the illusion of transparency. Just not feeling lost. Krashen calls a hundred percent transparency pointing out every morpheme. Like the s on tienes. Boring.

          1. Yes. Tina, I read Krashen making this statement. Agree about the illusion of transparency. My only input (haha) on this is having compelling input instead of pointing out spellings etc…

  2. I just read the word “raised” in Greek. It is one of those fuzzy words for me. But the context was clear. Someone raised his hand and swore on oath. As we contain to get CI we will encounter words in a variety of contexts. Some offer no help and some make the meaning of the word crystal clear. Since we are not being tested on the word we may think, “I should look that up” but then our eye falls on the next word and we keep on going because we want to find out what happens (or experience the story again) and we get more CI.

    But some words/phrases are more essential than others for comprehension…it depends on the story. So some words have to be transparent. If we do not know certain words in a joke we will not get the joke.

      1. Ben, I like attempting to personalize before lightly circling the word as heard or seen in the story. I usually do this with verbs. For example if “he ran” came up. I will ask a student if they run when they play baseball… because I know a baseball player in the class. Or if they “run” home to do their homework. Haha. If there is no way to personalize, I do “lightly circle” slowly and with inflections, tone and curiosity.

  3. To appreciate Blaine’s use of English I think it is helpful to remember what he was avoiding. The main picture I have is that of the teacher who is trying to avoid English, doing whatever is necessary to stay 100% in L2, and providing pictures, gestures and actions which may be ambiguous and misleading. His contention was that we lose CI time making kids guess when we could quickly clarify with one word in English.

    I remember Krashen explain somewhere that the advantage of the classroom (as compared to the learn it in a café in Paris) is that we need a comprehensible environment.

    I agree with Alisa that the amount of noise that we can tolerate is partially dependent on stage one is at (beginners less than intermediate). I wold guess that it is also developmental (adults less than children). It is also individual depending on one’s personality and demand for exactitude. Balancing 30 personalities at different levels of acquisition is not an easy trick.

    1. But in my application of nt there’s no guessing cause there’s no focus on the individual meaning. It just goes in. And it’s our responsibility to ensure comprehension of the message. I no longer call on kids with my onetime favorite What did I just say. I ask the whole class from time to time.

    2. …balancing 30 personalities at different levels of acquisition is not an easy trick….

      And yet CI teachers and many CI trainers advocate that – they try to balance those 30 personalities on the heads of three target structures.

      I see the future of this work in terms of some noise and no full transparency except at very beginning levels. Noise is good.

      Here is a link to an old post on the PLC about that:


      1. I was just working with Janet on Korean getting ready for the Cascadia conference. We were working on asking questions about the kids’ cards where they write something they like. We were talking about how at the beginning of the week she will need to keep the noise way down but as everyone relaxes into the experience then she can loosen up.
        We realized that there is a lot of loosening up that needs to go on for the teacher. And how much unlearning, deep, ingrained unlearning, needs to go on to let go of the idea that we are teaching language. The urge for full transparency is strong in us, and it gets us all tangled up in our conscious minds and slows us down and makes us second-guess, “Can I really say that?”
        I was telling her that she needs to let go of the idea that the are going to even RECOGNIZE the Korean by the end of nine hours, and think more like “They are going to have a totally enjoyable and relaxing, comprehensible, fun experience in Korean.” After all, in nine, or even in one hundred eighty hours, how much language will they truly acquire? And how much of what we always thought was “acquisition” is actually conscious learning, as if they have memorized for the short-term the elements of the language that we repeated so much…but at the expense of going wide with the language.

        1. I’ve never been happy with the distinction “acquisition” versus “learning” or “unconscious” versus “conscious”. I prefer “meaning-based” versus “intellectual”. Meaning-based learning can be conscious or unconscious (Can we really know how much of one or the other is going on in our lessons? And aren’t translations always conscious?) and intellectual learning for me is the still much used teaching style in German schools, by which I mean intellectual grammar and the related exercises. In the tests in our middle schools there is an important part called “Mixed grammar”. But the students proficiency in speaking and writing is very low; I’m tempted to say non-existent.

          Unlearning: I’ve come a long way from when I was a novice teacher and I’m still working on it.
          As a novice I started with the didactic dogma “Stay in the TL, don’t translate anything” . But what to do with 6 year old beginners! I used action poems and games and so on. But for many years now I’ve been thinking, if they know the meaning in German, their MT, they can understand/learn the TL when I give them a quick translation. So I use the so-called sandwich-technique: I say sth in English, which I would say otherwise in German in the situation, give a German equivalent and say it in English again. When I’ve done this on several occasions, some of my students will have picked it up or they can even output it. Of course I’m careful not to overdo this. Now I feel much more flow in my lessons.

          1. Udo said:

            …meaning-based learning can be conscious or unconscious (can we really know how much of one or the other is going on in our lessons?….

            This is profound. We act like there is a line that can be drawn to delineate between the conscious and unconscious faculties. There isn’t. I really appreciate this distinction.

          2. In my view conventional TPRS teachers sacrifice rich language and true engagement when they keep bending their instruction to the conscious faculty. Yes, the conscious faculty plays a small part and there is no clear line of demarcation there as Udo points out, but they allow it to play too big a part, which takes them dramatically away from the research. I think it’s connected to ego.

          3. Ben, could you be specific about conventional TPRS teachers using the conscious faculty too much?

          4. Udo – sorry my response is kind of a rant. I tend to do that:

            Conventional TPRS teachers, in their effort to emulate Blaine’s targetless and highly intuitive style in the late 1990’s, couldn’t do it – no blame but as school teachers they just didn’t rely on their intuition and things of the heart in their classrooms. It’s the way schools work.

            So certain leaders started to try to figure out how to do it and in so doing over the past 20 years they twisted what Blaine was doing, a very intuitive way of teaching, which is at the core of TPRS and buried it beneath layers and layers of formulae. Now it’s about massed reps of circled targets. It wasn’t that in the beginning.

            Conferences happened. With each conference it became more and more codified. All of a sudden teachers were competing to see whose students read the most novels each year. Reading is great, and should provide in my view 50% of the CI that kids get, but the novels weren’t that interesting. Some were good, but they sent kids drifting. I said that they were like “bricks” though, and they were for me, and I got large heaps of abuse from the experts for saying that.

            I always wanted to bring this work back to what Krashen and Blaine were originally doing. That’s what this new and refreshing interests in NT work is all about. It’s not new at all. It just got lost. Beniko Mason has called for a “course correction” in TPRS. One of the great language researchers of the world says that TPRS needs a course correction. And she gets ignored.

            Krashen gave us, in Denver in 2009, his “blessing” in a videotaped speech I was present for, saying TPRS was “more close to” his vision than anything else and the experts took that to mean that TPRS was reflecting his work perfectly. Not true at all. I tried to fit in, but my heart wasn’t in it. It was all getting too analytical and the unconscious piece – from which joy springs – was largely more and more ignored until lately. So to me SK is all about non-targeted.

            Each year the teaching shifted more in the direction of conscious control of the class and about five people became experts. Coaching at the conferences sent the message out that this work is hard but if you practice circling enough you will get it but you may need to come back next year but only one of four did bc they bombed with it after their first workshop. We became beholden to those people.

            With non-targeted, we return to original CI, if you will. Blaine based his work on Krashen’s work and the researched (for 30 years at that point in 2001) power of the unconscious mind in language acquisition. He did that on purpose. He set out consciously with the intent to base a way of teaching using stories on the work of SK. It was not luck.

            Another thing is that there is a bias in TPRS brought by the experts. It’s by whites about whites. I have a problem with that because that is not who we are as a nation. We are addressing the equity piece in June at the Portland conference. It is a new frontier in this work which up until now has been (look at many of the readers) about whites.

            They may talk about ice cream cones in class but really every story has to do with appearances, accepting others and fitting in. I would say to Jeff that even the colors of the cones have power. Kids are like that. They are very much into many layers of things in class but TPRS in the past has embodied white messages and celebrities having a million dollars and so I am expressing this poorly but let’s just say that we can use this work to reach and teach human values and not just Hollywood culture.

            Too much to say. Too much change. Good, but dizzying. I am a big fan of targeted input, don’t get me wrong. It’s good stuff. It works. I am just a bigger fan of non-targeted input and also big fan of the idea that we all get to do it our way, which is not one way but a million different ways, ways based on intuition and not on conscious control.

            So sorry for the rant!

          5. Ben, you said, ” We are addressing the equity piece in June at the Portland conference.” I thought this was just about class but You and Tina are taking this to the next level… BEYOND what the conferences were all about. There is no better time than now.

          6. We are meeting with some people in St. Louis this month w the intent of getting them to Portland. We are also speaking with Anna Gilcher. We aren’t messing around, since as you say the time is now.

          7. Ben, thanks very much for these insights, I very much appreciate your dedication which I feel in your answers.

          8. In the language classrooms of the future, children will feel happy. Not like dung. They will believe in their language abilities. It will be the dawn of a new day. God will help us, because He always does.

          9. Udo with really young kids I suggest – if you have the time – to put the name “Alisa Shapiro-Rosenberg” into the search bar here and read everything she has said on elementary language education. It is my opinion that she holds the decoder switch to the entire subject in her hands there in Chicago, where she is forcing the most traditional high school programs – and I mean rigid – to change. It is because when her kids start moving up to the secondary level as they are right about now they bring havoc – they demand CI instruction – on the north side of Chicago, This was caused by Alisa’s team of inspired elementary CI teachers. What amazing things that a few people can do when they work together for change that has foundations in what is right. The culture there is being changed from the bottom up, and that is the only way it can happen. As with all true change, it seems so slow, as if we are getting nowhere, but we really are, we just can’t see it. So yeah, got off point there, but my view is that Alisa holds the key to the elementary piece right now.

          10. I put Alisa’s name in the search bar and found one item. I couldn’t access her video bc youtube is no longer working with Mozilla Firefox. I tried another browser/server (whatever it’s called) and put the video’s title into the search bar but only got rubbish. HELP!!! PLEASE!!!
            And Ben, did you get my e-mail?

          11. No I didn’t get an email from you Udo. Was it to benslavic at yahoo.com?

            Just put “Alisa” into the search bar. I did that and got lots of articles.

          12. Udo,
            Hi, it’s Alisa-let me know if you have any specific Qs – I have learned so much from participating in this awesome conversation.
            I teacher Spanish grades 1-4 and now Hebrew, too, grades 3-7.

  4. Could you clarify the last thought there Tina?

    “And how much of what we always thought was “acquisition” is actually conscious learning, as if they have memorized for the short-term the elements of the language that we repeated so much…but at the expense of going wide with the language.”

    1. We got them to remember the structures through so much repetition it’s sort of like using your conscious minds and alll the tune soebtvof the reps of ONE thing could’ve spent in richer language.

      1. I know that online there is a tremendous amount of (very often rude) pushback against the non-targeted tide. Let’s just admit that, get it out in the open. Anybody who has been reading on the different lists has seen what amounts to just plain nasty professional comments online for many months now, and significant outright censorship and harsh condemnation by different personalities who run the iFLT and moretprs lists. That said, for me, there is nothing that can refute the absolute truth that in non-targeted input, as Tina said above, [the class] is “spent in richer language”. This is my truth. Richer language greatly lowers the affective filter, engages kids to a much higher degree in my own experience while making class go by a lot faster in what amounts to a lot more fun. It doesn’t have to be everyone’s truth.

        1. RIGHT! Richer language lowers the Affective filter by allowing the language to serve connection rather than hold it back.

          Today there was national testing for 8th graders. I had about 5 students in my class. Well, we did a special interview. We went so wide but so much deeper than using targets. I went slowly, one student asked a question. It is becoming like a sincere “Let’s get to know this person and celebrate them for their uniqueness.” They get so much input and the rest of the students do as well. For sanity, we are doing a cultural project on Francophone countries. I am using the opportunity to interview students out of genuine curiousity. It’s 10 minutes of free dialogue which include questions used in the star of the day and other random questions. I am feeling very successful with this because there is already a lot of trust but also even more trust building via one on one interactions. I have small classes! After interviewing two students, I am so amazed and proud of them. Questions I asked included: Age, likes, favorite class, sports, musical instrument, traveling, siblings, favorite color, favorite series or film, favorite drink etc… One of my top students was going too fast for me! We talked about his swedish parents, I asked him if he spoke swedish, I asked him about his brief layover in the Paris airport etc… I have interaction on my mind and this is why I did it. The students know that there is no right or wrong here and that we are trying to have some joyous moments in the shadow rigorous education.

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