METHODS FOR TEACHING Things and The Words That Signify Them



The term things is adopted from Roger Brown’s book Words and Things: An Introduction to Language (Free Press, 1958). The word things as used here refers to any

                                object                                     feeling                                    action or                                idea

in the real or imaginary world. It is assumed there is nothing in the entirety of the physical, intellectual and social universes that cannot be classified into one of these four categories.  Brown is not the only, or even the first, person to use things as a shorthand referent to any or every object, feeling, action, or idea: moralists such as Saint Augustine (354-430), philosophers such as Ludwig Wittgenstein, and psycholinguists such as John Carroll have all used things in a similar manner. Its use here is not original. The word “referents” could have been used.

Things do not move from one category to another. True, the word depression may signify an object (an indentation or dip), a feeling (sad, lonely, etc.) or an action (“the stock market is depressed”); but these are all different things. It just happens that these different things are signified by the same word.



Words are a series of sounds (phonemes) or written letters (graphemes) that signify one or more things. The association between a word and its meaning—the thing it signifies—is arbitrary and must be learned. One word may signify more than one thing: e.g., depression signifying a dent or dip, a feeling, or an action. Knowing what meaning a word has—or what a word signifies—often depends upon the context in which it is used.


Direct Teaching


Direct teaching of meaning vocabulary means explicitly teaching the child the meaning of a word(s). Direct teaching occurs in many ways, not just teaching in the classroom: e.g.,

  • repetitive naming (What’s that?  Is that a       ?)
  • labeling in mother-child interaction (Roger Brown)
  • picture books for pre-school children
  • parents reading picture books to pre-school children
  • direct teaching of vocabulary
  • lists of words to be learned in secondary schools
  • glossaries, etc. in textbooks.


Direct Teaching: RINS

Peters, Charles (1974-1975). “A comparison between the Frayer model of concept attainment and the textbook approach to concept attainment” (abstract). International Reading Association Outstanding Dissertation. Reading Research Quarterly, 10, 252-254.

Working with the Dorothy Frayer model of concept learning, Charles Peters (1974-75) experimentally contrasted two methods of teaching concepts (things and their words) and found that the following four steps of instruction led to significantly better learning of concepts than did the traditional method of looking up definitions.

a.     define the thing’s relevant attributes (i.e., where it belongs in the world of things or the intrinsic qualities common to all examples of this thing);

b.     state its irrelevant attributes (i.e., qualities or specific types that are not endemic to all examples of the thing);

c.     state non-examples (i.e., plausible alternatives to test the student to see if s/he has learned the distinguishing characteristics); and

d.     state its relation to other similar concepts.

In the Center for Literacy and Reading Instruction, we use the acronym RINS to refer to Peters’ methods for directly teaching a thing and the word that signifies that thing:


R     is for the thing’s Relevant attributes,

I       is for the thing’s Irrelevant attributes,

N     is for Non-examples of the thing, and

S     is for the word’s relation to Similar things.


                Note that this method is for teaching a student a concept that is not known—which means that the word signifying that concept would  also not be known. The major task of the teaching here, however, is not teaching the word, but teaching the concept to which the word is associated. Teaching a student another word (e.g., synonym) for a word and concept the student already knows does not involve instruction as elaborate as RINS (e.g., swift for fast, tome for book).

Example: atoll

1. Relevant attributes: island that is ring shaped, made of coral and encircles a lagoon

2. Irrelevant attributes: size, location (which ocean), inhabited/non-inhabited

3. Non-examples: coral reef, desert island, Hawaii, North America

4. Relation to similar concepts: relation to islands, peninsulas


RINS is not only a guideline for teachers to help them plan the direct teaching of a concept, but it is also a very useful cognitive organizer that students may apply when trying to learn a concept.  RINS is a good rubric for helping the student focus attention the essential requirements of learning the sense of a word’s meaning. That is, to learn a thing or concept, students need to know that they must know the relevant and irrelevant attributes of the thing and be able to non-similar and similar things. RINS is an acronym that will help them remember the aspects of a concept that they must attend to.


Direct Teaching: Concept of Definition

Schwartz, Robert M., & Raphael, Taffy E. (1985). Concept of definition: A key to improving students’ vocabulary. The Reading Teacher, 39(2), 198-205.

Schwartz, Robert M. (1988). Learning to read vocabulary in content area textbooks. Journal of Reading, 32(2), 108-118.

Schwartz and Raphael’s ideas for teaching the meaning of a specific word when the student does not already know the concept that present are not much different than Peters’ and RINS. Further, their framework can also be conceived as a cognitive organizer of the major aspects of a concept. Again, like RINS, Schwartz and Raphael’s Concept of Definition not only provides a guide for the teacher for planning how to teach a specific concept or thing, but it also provides a cognitive organizer for students to know the features of a concept to which they must attend as they are trying to that concept. Their framework contains four major components which are arranged as shown in the following figure. The software package Inspiration provides a template for the Concept of Definition, though it has a slightly different appearance than the one Schwartz and Raphael published. 



                             Schwartz and Raphael’s                                                  Inspiration’s Template for

                               Concept of Definition                                                          Defining Concepts


Key Words, Mnemonics

Pressley, Michael, Levin, Joel R., & McDaniel, Mark A. (1987). Remembering versus inferring what a word means: Mnemonic and contextual approaches. In Margaret G. McKeown & Mary E. Curtis (Eds.), The nature of vocabulary acquisition (pp. 107-128). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

 “The most common version of the keyword method involves construction of interactive visual images. The learner generates an image of the definition referent interacting with a keyword, which is simply a familiar concrete word that resembles a salient part of the unfamiliar word.” (Pressley, Levin, & McDaniel, 1987, p. 109).

e.g., The word carlin means old woman. Using the keyword car, a student is able to generate a visual image of an old woman driving a car. When the student next sees the word carlin, a connection will be seen between the car in carlin because of the acoustic similarity of the two, which in turn is supposed to lead to the visual image containing the old woman.

Key words do not have to be generated by the learner, which is important because younger students (e.g., pre-grade four) will have much difficulty generating keyword images. Teachers may generate these images for younger students, and research findings support the conclusion that such teacher-generated keyword images do facilitate learning new word meanings. Research findings support the use of the keyword method with average students, low-ability students, and students encountering reading or learning problems.


Contextual Vocabulary Acquisition (CVA)

Sternberg’s Views on CVA

Sternberg, Robert J. (1987). Most vocabulary is learned from context. In Margaret G. McKeown & Mary E. Curtis (Eds.), The nature of vocabulary acquisition (pp. 89-105). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Sternberg, Robert J., & Powell, Janet S. (1983). Comprehending verbal comprehension. American Psychologist, 38, 878-893.


A.  CVA and Knowledge Acquisition Processes

1.  Selective Encoding—separating relevant from irrelevant information

2.  Selective Combination—combining relevant cues

3.  Selective Comparison—comparing new information (from text) with previous information (good examples are Linus Pauling’s “fitting new thing into his picture of the world” and G.B. Shaw’s Major Barbara who’s “spirit was troubled” upon learning something new, to which her father said, “You have learnt something. That always feels as if you have lost something.”

B.  Contextual Cues

1.  Temporal Cues: duration or frequency of X.

2.  Spatial Cues: locations, possible locations where X may be found.

3.  Value Cues: the worth or desirability of X.

4.  Stative Descriptive Cues: properties of X such as color, size, shape, odor, feel, etc.).

5.  Functional Descriptive Cues: possible purposes or uses of X or actions or functions X can do.

6.  Causal/Enablement Cues: possible causes of X or enabling conditions of X.

7.  Class Membership Cues:  class(es) to which X belongs, or other members of class(es) to which X belongs.

8.  Equivalence Cues: specific referents to meaning or opposite meaning (e.g., restatement, definition in parenthesis or sentence phrase/dependent clause).

C.  Moderating Variables

1.  Number of times X occurs.

2.  Variability in the contexts in which X occurs.

3.. Importance of X to comprehending the text in which X appears.

4.  Helpfulness of surrounding context.

5.  Density of unknown words in text.

6.  Ability to retrieve prior knowledge, recognize its relevance, and apply it.


Lee Deighton’s Context Clues (adapted from Lee Deighton, 1974)

Deighton, Lee. (1974). Vocabulary development in the classroom. New York: Teachers College Press.

a.     Definition: an outright definition of the word, term or phrase; usually the unknown word is followed by a form of the word be—e.g.,

       clones are; a computer is

b.     Examples: usually include signal words that indicate an example is about to follow—e.g.,

       such, such as, like, especially, for example, other, this or these (followed by a synonym), the way, in the way that

c.     Modifiers: phrases, clauses or words often coming after a linking verb—e.g.,

       The women’s movement, which seeks equality with men, is . . . .

d.     Restatement, used most frequently: the writer’s conscious restatement when recognizing that more needs to be said that usually includes signal word–e.g.,

       in other words; i.e.; that is; that is to say; —      — (dashes); (    ) (parentheses); bold face type; italics; the word or plus a synonym (e.g., things or concepts); appositives (e.g., Abe Lincoln, our 16th president, was very . . . )

e.     Inference: requires the reader to distinguish sentences that develop a thought and sentences that rephrase a thought. Inferences are not explicit and not directly teachable.

f.      Inferences with established connections—e.g.,

       parallel sentence structure;

       repetition of key words;

       restatement in opposites or same;

       connecting words such as: yet, hence, thus, therefore, thereupon.


Ames’ Classification of Context Clues for Word Meaning (Ames, 1966)

Ames, Wilbur S. (1966). The development of a classification scheme of contextual aids. Reading Research Quarterly, 2(1), 57-82.

Ames asked Education Ph.D. candidates to read selections from Reader’s Digest and The Saturday Evening Post. In each selection, every 50th noun, verb, adjective or adverb was replaced with a pronounceable nonsense word, maintaining the derivations and inflections (e.g., maodly for deadly and obspedists for astronauts). The readers reported (a) what they thought the real word was and (b) what language clues and mental processes they used to predict the word. Ames’ fourteen clues are presented for your information, but recall, the subjects—mature adults—already knew the thing or concept the real word signified, they just could not identify the printed form of the word (not uncommon in the elementary and middle grades). I call this using context for word recognition: e.g.,


Babe Ruth hit the                  over the fence.

This differs a great deal from using context for word meaning—which is when the reader (usually an upper-elementary reader or better) is able to identify the word (sound it out probably), but does not know its meaning: i.e.,


The palimpsest made reading the work difficult.

Context for word meaning is different than context for word recognition. Bear this in mind in reading Ames’ clues.

     1.   Clues derived from language experience or familiar expressions (idioms).

I wonder how much the security of the country is being safeguarded by the paunchy reservist who spends one evening a week at the Reserve center thacing (chewing) the fat with the boys, thereby escaping from the dishes at home.

     2.   Clues using modifying phrases or clauses.

She ran but he caught up with her, knocked her down and shoered (slashed) her repeatedly with a knife.

     3.   Clues using definition or description.

Some even looked alive, though no steet (blood) flowed beneath the skin.

     4.   Clues provided through words connected or in a series.

Could any one man have poured out all the beauty and truth of the sonnets and grods (plays) of William Shakespeare?

     5.   Comparison or contrast clues.

What will we do with all this spare time?  Will it be a blessing or a fome (bane)?

     6.   Synonym clues.

Their achievement was so breath-taking that it whodeted (provoked) – and still provokes – a kind of idolatry and the great controversy.

     7.   Clues provided by tone, setting, and mood of text.

Not a single chair was to be seen, and my whole body was trembling from the maodly (deadly) chill that had entered my veins.

     8.   Referral clues.

In the next 24 hours 290 babies will die, either at birth or before reaching their first birthday.  This is 2 ½ times the number of lives that will be lost in auto accidents in the same rugoul (period), and exceeds the total claimed in a day by lung, breast and stomach cancer.

     9.   Association clues.

Surely it will take a hundred Louvres and Metropolitan Museums to house the paintings of the future, and thousands of orchestras to trur (play) the new symphonies.

  10.   Clues derived from the main idea or supporting details pattern of paragraph organization.

However, I soon found a spemgelan (practical) use for it.  I began storing orange juice in it, since it fitted nicely inside the refrigerator.

  11.   Clues provided through the question-answer pattern of paragraph organization.

Now it’s becoming interesting to ask, “How does the human brain do it?”  And, for the first time, within the last year or two, we’re vocting (getting) a real idea of that.

  12.   Preposition clues.

A little later, as he sped northward along a California cliotol (freeway), Kendricks was stopped by a highway patrol officer.

  13.   Clues utilizing non-restrictive clauses or appositive phrases (an appositive is a placement of a word or expression beside another so that the second explains and has the same grammatical elements as the first).

Las Vegas, which larps (misses) few other bets, has yet to provide a slot machine by which we can lose our money with our left hand as nature intended.

  14.   Clues derived from cause and effect pattern of paragraph and sentence organization.

Foremost, of course, drivers need to realize that by cheating the insurance companies, they are only pushing their own premiums lorter (higher).