What does it mean to "know" a word?

The other day I was in the middle of a conversation with someone...

the person I was speaking to suddenly said  

"then how do you know if someone
knows something or not?

The question came because I'd  been ranting that standardized testing was mainly just a test of memory skills or the ability to regurgitate somone else's information without fully understanding it, verifying it for a real truth and that more often than not, tests don't test knowledge.  

So I deserved this question flying back at me to test my own knowledge.

Big, deep breath as the flood of everything I've learned or experienced about learning, everything I disagree with and everything, thought-through, everything I've experimented with and found merit in... all these other-people's-ideas jostling around for top priority 
(pick me! pick me!) 

...in the end, leaving me paralyzed and unable to answer.  I mean, if you've ever been there too, you know the dilemma right?   My god, my god: there's literally a theory for everything under the sun when it comes down to pedagogy (and andragogy) and whoa, this trails all the way back to Socrates and beyond.

I mean what to answer with first? 

There isn't a one right answer.

There are many.

Which probably isn't terribly useful for you... so I should probably leave this post alone except for the fact that my fingers ache from not having blogged for so long and I've gotta share with you - you give me my buzz and keep me thinkin'...

My life has recently turned into this time-consuming, exciting, brain challenging world 
of creating e-learning and m-learning products and we 
(Voxy - I'm their academic consultant, if you missed that update) 
are radically changing the status quo of language learning autonomously
~what we're working on producing next is seriously going to blow your minds :-)

...and, actually, I drafted this post out so very long ago and then never published it.

This is part of the H2LE (How-to-learn-English) posts and is a guide for learners on vocabulary acquistion.   I've been working on it since 2003 and have used it for training teachers on the use of dictionaries in Ecuador and here in Germany use it as a learning-to-learn doc for adult language learners:

I can cheerfully add that everytime I learn something new, it'll change!

  • To view in full-screen, see the icon on the right of the black box with slide numbers.
  • To embed it on your own site, click on menu to grab the code.
  • To embed in a Ning or other learning platform save your own copy and upload into the GoogleDocs app.
  • To share this blog post with colleagues, tap on "bookmark" button at the bottom of this post - above the retweet button - and click on the social-networking/envelope/print icon.
  • To send just the document to your students, right click over THIS LINK and select the option to copy the link-address then insert this into an email.

Useful links:

But going back to my original opening... 

What does it mean to know something?

You know it when you can apply it in a different context, 
at a different time and place.  
You know it when you own it.


As always anything to add or share with me - please do!  If you've written a post or two about this subject, don't hesitate to add the link.


    9 Responses to “What does it mean to "know" a word?”

    • David says:
      March 01, 2011


      This is a rich but "troubling" area to look at. Even guys like Chomsky or Wittgenstein were left rolling their eyes and blinded. In fact, we even can't agree and don't even understand - "what is a word". Here's a nice video on that I've used in classes. http://vimeo.com/1549063

      But your post also is about a different issue - one I just blogged about - knowing what a student knows. Great teachers know a lot more "in their skin" not empirically. And that's how we do know what a person knows - through a lot of pragmatic knowledge and contextual knowledge. Not just from direct speech. (reminded now of Pinker's good talk on indirect speech).

      but you raise another issue - testing. I assert and am willing to defend this to the end - you can't test what a person knows. You can only test what the test tests. And for language - a non content subject, that's pretty useless. But we do it and people make zillions of dollars from doing it. It is a kind of confidence game....

      Sterling thoughts for us teachers!

    • Luciana says:
      March 01, 2011

      Hi Karenne,
      I got thinking about the use of tests by reading your post and I have to agree that it is not the most efficient way to know what your students have learned. But depending on the test and how the teacher evaluates it, it might help to have a feedback. What I believe is that it can never be the only way to assess. I also sent the teachers at the school I work, the link to your blog because of the tips on how to learn a word. I'll be personally using it with my students and am already thinking of a project with the upper intermediate class. Thanks for sharing your ideas and thoughts.

    • Eva Buyuksimkesyan says:
      March 01, 2011

      Hi Karenne,
      Thanks for this post and for the great presentation. I really loved the steps and its being visual makes it very clear to understand. I am also thinking about teaching vocab these days as I see my students try to survive with the minimum vocabulary they know. They can't leearn or neglect vocab learning. Because of that I thought about it and wrote some posts for the blogathon but sometimes I think if they do not want to learn, we can't teach of course but to show them with visuals how to learn the new words will be more effective.

    • David Warr says:
      March 01, 2011

      I agree. A comprehensive slide show of what you can know and do with just one word, all the places it can take you. You could easily spend a whole lesson on the word "friend". It's the essence of Dogme, I'd say.

    • rliberni says:
      March 02, 2011

      Fabulous post Karenne! You say that every time you know something it changes and especially now with technology (can't wait to see what Voxy will produce - feeling scared already!)but I also feel that everytime you know something YOU change it's all part of a journey. I am thinking a lot at the moment about transformation and how learning (and teaching too) transforms and how we measure that - if indeed we should. It's personal but I think as teachers who are tuned in and empathetic to our learners we can sense or see it and that's mostly good enough for me.

    • Brad Patterson says:
      March 02, 2011

      Love it.

      Awesome pictures, and an important point. PLUS, there were so 20+ great ideas for tasks or action for

      How do I get to know my new words?

      Personalize it: how can you apply it to something in your own life? At work or at home?

      ...was my 'personal' fav! :) Thnx for sharing it and 'll definitely put it to use and get back to you.

      Cheers, b

    • Anonymous says:
      March 04, 2011

      I liked your video on the word 'friend'

    • Anonymous says:
      March 04, 2011

      I like your video on the word

    • Mike Church says:
      March 08, 2011

      Yet another wonderful post, Karenne. I *always* find something worth reading here - and you can't say that about many sites.

      The slideshow ("friend") is great and really hammers the point home. I would like to share it - as is - and credit you and your sources, of course.

      OK, let's play Devil's advocate for a minute... There *is* however a large group of words or phrases that you can "know" pretty immediately and use invariably correctly simply by learning the corresponding translation in the learner's language (use or non-use of L1 in the classroom - I expect you've covered that here somewhere). For instance, I can tell my students that "ugly" means "feo" (in Spanish) and they are rarely likely to use the word incorrectly - whatever the context. Ditto "dishwasher" = "lavavajillas", "however" = "sin embargo" and "goodbye" = "adios". These are the "either you know them or you don't" words (and phrases) of the language.

      Keep up the great work!


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