From Psychobabble and Gobbledygook to Improved Vocabularies and Substantial Lexis

1 : a list or collection of words or of words and phrases usually alphabetically arranged and explained or defined
2 : a sum or stock of words employed by a language, group, individual, or work or in a field of knowledge (retrieved from

In academic disciplines, teaching students the vocabulary of that field is essential to their understanding of the discipline. In psychology, there are literally thousands of terms and definitions that are necessary to understand the field. The APA Dictionary of Psychology is a weighty tome (4.5 lbs!) containing some 25,000 terms and phrases. And flip to the back of any psychology textbook and peruse the length of the glossary — it is no wonder students sometimes feel as if they are taking a foreign language when enrolled in a psychology course. Knowledge of psychological terminology, though, enhances not only students’ knowledge of the field but also their professional identification with the field. In a presentation at APA’s annual convention, founding editor of the APS Observer’s popular“Teaching Tips” column and APS’s Lessons Learned series Baron Perlman said, “The language we teach in the classroom does not merely describe psychology: it is psychology. Precise use of terminology is critical to our efficacy as professionals.”

In addition to teaching students psychology-specific terminology, it is important to enhance students’ vocabulary in general. Many psychological terms are not specific to our field, but are instead specific applications of broader terms to the psychological context (e.g., concurrent, dissociation, manic). A case in point: while teaching the history of psychology a professor puts up the word “eclectic” and finds that students do not know what the word means. It would be easy for that professor to lament over students’ lack of vocabulary abilities, but then isn’t it our job to foster the improvement of their vocabulary? And if vocabulary is essential to success in psychology courses, college in general, and, eventually, careers, shouldn’t we, as instructors, design some of our teaching practices to help students strengthen their vocabulary?

Simply discussing the importance of vocabulary with students may make them aware of the value of learning new words to succeed in college and in future careers. Oral and written communication skills lead the list of skills that employers want in their new recruits (Jobweb, 2008). Consequently, it may be useful to share information with students about research on vocabulary size (e.g., studies have reported estimates ranging anywhere from 19,000 to 200,000 words for university graduate students; Graves, 1986, as cited in Marzano, 2004) and the importance of having a rich word repertoire (e.g., Baker, Simmons, & Kameenui, n.d.; Lehr, Osborn, & Hiebert, n.d.; Verizon Lifespan Literacy Matrix, n.d.).

the art, science, or profession of teaching; especially: Education.

There are basic and sound pedagogies for teaching psychology-specific vocabulary or general vocabulary in courses. First, we would encourage faculty to present new words in a three-step process: provide a clear definition, discuss the suffixes and prefixes when appropriate, and give examples of the words in use. For example, when teaching a word such as somnambulism, provide students with the definition (e.g., an abnormal condition of sleep in which motor acts such as walking are performed) and also tell them that somna typically refers to “sleep” and amble means “walk.” Finally, give an example of a sentence using the term (e.g., Because Brett had somnambulism, he would sometimes get up and go get something to eat while still being asleep).

Introducing Vocabulary With Icebreakers
It is important to introduce vocabulary early in the semester and continue doing so throughout the course. For example, a professor could start the semester with a vocabulary icebreaker. Create a list of important vocabulary words for your course. You need half or a third as many words as you have students in the course. For example, if you have a class of 40 students, develop a list of 20 words that you consider particularly important for the class. Make sure that the words you select are somewhat unfamiliar to students, those which most students would not know (e.g., histrionic, anterograde, corpus callosum). Put two or three copies of each word in a hat or bowl and pass around to the students. Have each student take a slip of paper from the bowl. Then ask students to find their classmates with the same term. Once students find each other, give them a few minutes to get acquainted for the purpose of introducing each other to class (e.g., major, hometown hobbies, first word or phrase that comes to mind when they think of “psychology”). Student dyads (or triads in larger classes) should also talk with each other to generate their best guess as to a definition of their term. When each pair introduces themselves to the class, ask them what they think the term means. You may also provide a brief teaser about what the term means and what it has to do with the course. The goal of this icebreaker is to have students get to know someone new, preview some course topics, pique students’ curiosity, and show the value of vocabulary in the course. It may also provide you with some informal baseline data about students’ pre-existing knowledge of terms relevant to the course.

A variation of an icebreaker is to allow students to brainstorm psychological terms and concepts as a class and yell them out to you so you can make a list on the board. After the list of student-generated terms is on the board, ask volunteers to introduce themselves and provide possible definitions. Students will be excited to become aware of what they already know about psychology. You will also have the chance to correct any misconceptions about concepts early in the semester. After going through the student-generated list, provide some lesser known terms and again ask students to try to define them. Success with their vocabulary lists may make them more willing to make guesses about your terms. However, if no one knows the term, you can define it briefly and/or tell students when in the course they will learn about that key concept. As with the previous icebreaker, you will get the class talking and excited about psychology on the first day while also highlighting the importance of vocabulary.

Enhancing Vocabulary With Activities
Another basic pedagogical activity to improve vocabulary is to start each class with a “word for the day.” For example, when starting a new chapter, you could select one very important vocabulary word to highlight for that day. Rather than having the instructor find the word for the day, each student could be assigned a day and required to find one word in the book for the current days’ assigned reading. Using this approach will reinforce the importance of elaborative rehearsal for memory through linking concepts to self-relevant information. In addition to providing definitions, ask students to become creative in their presentation of the definition. For example, students can show a brief video clip from YouTube that visually demonstrates the word. Another way to start each class with vocabulary is to randomly call on three students to come to the front of the room and ask them to define one word from the assigned textbook reading for that day. Students will be held more accountable for staying current on the readings by this approach and any student who provides a correct definition can be given one bonus point.

An additional way to encourage vocabulary knowledge is to create vocabulary activities as assignments. For example, students could keep a vocabulary journal with a minimum number of words for each chapter and be required to define them, analyze the word for prefixes and suffixes, and use the word in a sentence. Additionally, students could be required to create a class dictionary. This could work well in a research methods class or any class that is particularly jargon-rich. To create a dictionary as a class project, students pick or are assigned terms and write a definition and example of the term, compiling them in a three-ring binder that is kept in the lab or classroom. Alternatively, this dictionary could be completed on a class webpage, course discussion board, or even a class wiki (i.e., web pages that are designed to be easily accessible and modifiable so class members can collaborate on their development). When students create their own definitions they enhance comprehension by actively using their own language, which has benefits beyond regurgitating definitions provided by the text or instructor. One benefit of having the students develop their own definitions rather than simply repeating the definitions supplied by the text or the instructor is that it allows them to write the definitions in ways that are more understandable and meaningful for the novice/student level. An instructor could also make use of websites such as to create a variety of word puzzle handouts (e.g., crosswords, double puzzle, cryptograms) using terms and phrases related to the course. This could serve as an assignment, an exam review activity, or a team-oriented competition. Similarly, popular games such as Taboo, Balderdash, or Guesstures could be modified to incorporate vocabulary into an end-of-semester activity/competition.

Of course, if your objective is to improve vocabulary with your students, you need to assess vocabulary. As early as 1926, Harlan emphasized the importance of vocabulary in students’ understanding of psychology, noting, ”Such words as neurone (sic), stimulus, reaction, and synapse are used with such frequency and are representative of concepts of such importance that they are fundamental to an understanding of the subject” (p. 554). More recently, other authors have highlighted the importance and challenge of learning terms critical to students’ understanding of psychology while also offering suggestions and techniques for mastering that vocabulary (e.g., Carney & Levin, 1998). Griggs, Bujak-Johnson, and Proctor (2004) suggest that Introductory Psychology instructors build their courses to address key terms that are consistently presented in introductory texts. We have found that having a short matching section with key terms on each exam emphasizes the importance we place on vocabulary. Once students realize that the words of the day are included on the first exam, they will likely focus on enhancing and retaining the vocabulary as the course progresses.

in·for·ma·tion tech·nol·o·gy:
the technology involving the development, maintenance, and use of computer systems, software, and networks for the processing and distribution of data

OK, we know that if you go into your courses and say, “We are going to focus on vocabulary in this class!” you are not going to get applause and cheering. You may need to make it a little more appealing. Using technology can be one way to make vocabulary skill-building more engaging. First, we think it is valuable to show your students a good online dictionary (there is more on the World Wide Web than just Wikipedia!). We like the Merriam-Webster Online website ( because it gives clear definitions, provides audio definitions, and has some fun word games for students to play. Students will likely be familiar with Wikipedia, which varies in its accuracy for definitions and concepts. One hands-on technique to make students aware of the limitations of Wikipedia is to have them compare the definitions provided in their text and on the Merriam-Webster website with those provided on Wikipedia.

After identifying accurate definitions, we encourage our students to create their own flashcards to help them study names, concepts, and important terms. However, creating flashcards on index cards may seem “old school” to most students. As an alternative, have students create electronic flashcards — our favorite program is Cue Card 1.5 (available for free download at The benefit of the electronic flashcards is that after a student creates their set of flash cards, the computer randomly displays the cards and modifies their presentation based on the student’s performance. If a student keeps getting a card correct, the computer will not show that card as often. Conversely, if a student keeps getting a card incorrect, the computer will show that card more often.

An instructor can also use their Course Management System (CMS) to improve vocabulary skills for their students. As mentioned above, students could create a class dictionary of words by using the discussion board. Individual students or teams of students could be assigned chapters or readings and then be required to post summaries of the readings along with 2-5 important terms on the discussion board feature of the CMS. A relatively new feature in Blackboard and other management systems is the Glossary. The instructor can go in and manually add important terms fairly easily, giving students access to the glossary. Some text books also have glossaries that you can download directly into your CMS.

An additional way to encourage vocabulary development for your students is to use something many of them are already using — Facebook (, the highly popular social networking site that enables students to join particular online communities (including school-based groups as well as any number of other groups). Once users join Facebook, they can create a basic profile of their characteristics and interests, post updates as to what they are doing, and communicate with others. We realize there are potential problems with Facebook and with faculty members being on Facebook; however, there are some pedagogically sound reasons for using it. Make sure to check your university’s policy for a faculty member using Facebook at your institution. On Facebook in addition to the basic profile template, there are also a variety of optional, free, add-on “applications.” One of these applications is the Flash Card application where students can add a set of electronic flash cards to their own personal profile page. Students may enjoy using the Facebook flash cards more than a separate download because they already go to Facebook regularly. An additional Facebook application to help learn general vocabulary is the Word A Day application. By adding this application, a person will receive a new vocabulary word every day. In addition, students can take a different 20-word vocabulary test every day and even compete with other students. What a wonderful, free, and entertaining way to improve vocabulary skills. If you don’t want to use Facebook for this,, in addition to a variety of resources, has a free service for e-mailing a word of the day.

Another very interesting tool to encourage vocabulary and understanding is a resource at If you go to this free webpage, you can type in any other webpage (e.g., and it automatically makes every word in that webpage a hotlink, so you can click on any word and it will automatically give a definition of that word. This is a very simple and easy website to use. This resource would be very useful when trying to read a webpage with a lot of jargon or difficult terminology.

an abstract, abridgment, or compendium especially of a preceding discourse

We have provided some simple, hands-on, and in many cases interactive, pedagogical techniques designed to enhance vocabulary skills in your classes. We have also provided some technology resources to assist your students on their quest to improve their vocabularies. We realize that learning vocabulary words is only one step in the process of comprehending psychological theories on a deeper level. However, familiarity with psychological terminology and jargon provides students with basic skills necessary to apply their knowledge and think critically and creatively. Therefore, focusing on vocabulary skill development is a crucial first step to these more advanced abilities. The seasoned psychology instructor may have forgotten how difficult it was to learn all of the psychology jargon as a novice newly discovering the field. Rather than bemoaning students’ lack of general vocabulary, it is more useful to provide the tools for improvement. And finally, we believe all of these activities are simply pedagogicalicous. (You’re right, that is NOT a real vocabulary word, but we think it should be!)

1 : the act of referring or consulting
2 : something that refers : as a : Allusion, Mention b : something (as a sign or indication) that refers a reader or consulter to another source of information (as a book or passage) c : consultation of sources of information

Baker, S.K., Simmons, D.C., & Kameenui, E.J. (n.d.). Vocabulary acquisition: Synthesis of the research. Retrieved October 23, 2008, from
Carney, R.N., & Levin, J.R. (1998). Coming to terms with the keyword method in introductory psychology: A ‘neuromnemonic” example. Teaching of Psychology, 25, 132-134.
Ehlrich, E. (1997). The highly selective dictionary for the extraordinarily literate. New York: HarperCollins.
Griggs, R.A., Bujak-Johnson, A., & Proctor, D.L. (2004). Using common core vocabulary in text selection and teaching the introductory course. Teaching of Psychology, 31, 265-269.
Harlan, C.L. (1926). The technical vocabulary of psychology. Journal of Educational Psychology, 17, 554-557.
Jobweb. Class of 2008 steps into good job market. Retrieved October 13, 2008, from
Lehr, F., Osborn, J., & Hiebert, E.H. (n.d.). A focus on vocabulary. Retrieved October 23, 2008, from
Marzano, R.J. (2004). Building background knowledge for academic achievement: Research on what works in schools. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
VandenBos, G. (Ed.). (2006). APA dictionary of psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Verizon Life Span Literacy Matrix. Retrieved October 23, 2008, from

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