How to bring abstract words to life

As educators, we often rely on pictures to teach new vocabulary to students. It works perfectly for concrete words. A quick search on Google Images will often give us the exact image we need to illustrate such words as bridge, run, or mother.

But what are we to do when introducing more abstract words?   All high-frequency vocab lists have them: natural, solution, save, become.   We need to teach them, yet finding the perfect picture to depict such words can be challenging, if not impossible.

This brings up an important distinction between concrete and abstract words. Concrete, or content words, are easier to illustrate because their meaning is so tangible. They represent concepts that can be easily seen and touched. 

Abstract words are more problematic. They tend to have multiple meanings and are more flexible. We term them “shadow words,” words that are high-frequency, yet often lost in the shadows because they are so difficult to depict and to teach when isolated. 

One strategy is to teach shadow words in phrases rather than alone, attaching them to content words students already know. It may be difficult to portray the word “become,” for example, but it is much easier to find a picture that depicts the collocations become a mother or become famous.

become a mother

become a mother


become famous








Teachers can then pose questions that build a context around the shadow word: Who is the woman? What was her life like nine months ago? How is her life different now? Why is her life different?

Adjectives are also notoriously difficult to depict, but less so when paired with familiar nouns. Teaching modern may be challenging, but when partnered with its noun collocates, the concept springs to life:

modern car Acura NSX concept 11507 1366x768

a modern car


a modern house








The idea is that shadow words are not loners. They need a richer context because they like to be with other words, so why not introduce them that way?   If they are presented in collocations with content words, their meaning emerges through pictures that bridge them together, making the job of introducing them much easier on teachers.

We will be conducting a workshop around shadow words this weekend, entitled, “Shadow words: Connecting grammar and vocabulary,” at the CATESOL 2014 State Conference this Friday, October 24. More posts on shadow words to come soon.

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