Flipping Isn’t Just About Video: A Better Approach to Vocabulary

would tell you how I used to incorporate vocabulary in my English classes, but I’m betting you already know. Chances are we pretty much did the same thing. I now do something different.


Flipping a classroom is not really about turning lectures into videos; it’s about freeing up class time for more one-on-one interaction with students. One way I’ve done this is by using Membean to teach new vocabulary.

Membean is an engaging, self-paced online learning environment that allows for multiple modes of learning. It gives students more control over their learning, and it provides teachers rich data that more accurately gauges mastery than any weekly vocabulary quiz ever could.


I know, I know. It sounds like they are paying me. They aren’t. I just know this method works really, really well, and I want a bumper new crop of logophiles out there.


Replacing a class vocabulary list with Membean.com was the most successful experiment of last year. My students learned at least twice as many words, and they learned these words more effectively. They used the words in their writing and speaking with more frequency and accuracy, and the students felt more prepared for standardized tests. I loved the free trial so much, I convinced my colleagues to use it. Now, we pay for a school-wide subscription, which will cost us about the same as last year’s workbooks.


Here’s Membean’s explanation of their system:

Why I like Membean:

  • Membean is better at gauging long-term memory than I am. Membean’s “adaptive reinforcement engine” monitors how often a student forgets a word and reinforces it at optimal times to help put the word deeper into long-term memory. In other words, it does something that I simply can’t do: it tunes practice to each individual student’s needs.
  • Membean allows for differentiation with little effort on the teacher’s part. Students first calibrate the system and are placed on a level from 1-5. Depending on the level, the individual students see different words. Also, based on their success throughout the week, they are introduced to new words at a pace that fits them best.
  • Students learn the words in context. It drives me nuts when students “study” a word simply by repeatedly looking over a list of words and definitions. Flashcards aren’t natural. Understanding language is more nuanced, and Membean’s tutorials account for this subtlety, presenting the word in varied contexts and modes.
  • Students are able to create their own Mnemonic devices. In the future, I’m sure Membean will have even more customizable features. I would run quickly away from any approach that makes students passive in their learning. I’m keenly interested in developing students’ metacognition and helping (forcing) them to be more proactive in their study habits. While Membean “gives” students many different ways of learning a word (context clues, video clips, images, root trees, a visual thesaurus), it does not dictate which mode students use. They have to decide what works, and when they forget a word, Membean instantly brings back the word page, forcing the students to explore it even deeper.
  • The vocabulary grade in my grade book began to emphasize process over product. Weekly vocabulary quizzes are too easy to “game.” It’s no surprise that many students cram for such a quiz and then quickly forget half the words. I have always incorporated a variety of vocabulary study techniques into my courses and emphasized that small, short bursts of studying are much more effective than longer but sporadic study sessions. My assessments, however, did not tell me ANYTHING specific about my students’ study habits. Now, I have a much more complete picture of their daily habits, and the majority of the points they earn in the grade book come from hitting weekly time targets (50 minutes per week) while the quiz scores are secondary.
  • Membean is always evolving. They are a smaller company, so they are very quick to respond to suggestions and upgrade requests. If Membean doesn’t do something you wish it would, chances are an email and a bit of patience will produce that must-have feature.

You can tell I love this tool. Here’s what’s more surprising. My students do, too. I initially asked them to try it for two weeks, and then I l left it to a democratic vote as to whether or not we would continue the experiment. The students ended up spending more time with Membean (at least 50 minutes a week) than with traditional methods, but all of them voted to stick with the extra work…because it felt less like work. Also, they, like me, were excited by the results they saw.


Student comments:

“Learning vocabulary is generally something that is crammed into a person’s short-term memory, but with Membean there is a fast-track to a person’s long-term memory. I have been using vocab books all my life and have retained less than 25% of material. With Membean I am able to recite nearly all of the words that I have seen.”


“Membean really helped me prepare for the SAT and ACT. I always had a fun time learning new words!”


“I really liked using Membean. All the different ways Membean gives you to learn a word are really useful. It also helps you figure out the ways you like to learn the best.”


“Before Membean my 10th grade English class used a boring vocab book which took forever, and I wouldn’t even learn the words. With Membean I learned a ton of vocab words and found myself using them when I talked to my friends.”


“Membean was a lot more efficient then using a standard vocab book, especially the pictures. Having a visual representation helps a lot.”


“I was apprehensive at first about whether or not Membean would truly hold up to its claim to improve my vocabulary. After using the software for a couple of weeks, however, I was pleasantly surprised by the effectiveness of the site to accurately gauge which words I already learned and which words I needed to review. Overall, I enjoyed using Membean. Not only was it much preferred to the traditional vocabulary book lessons, it was generally just a superior method in learning vocabulary.”


Editor’s note: This post originally appeared at www.robinbneal.com

Robin Neal

Educator at Beaver Country Day School

Robin Neal teaches English at Beaver Country Day School, a progressive, independent school in the Boston area. He has also taught in public and international schools and has experience at all levels from grades 6-12. He is particularly interested in technology in the classroom and how it can be used to create more dynamic, authentic educational experiences.