Thursday, May 11, 2017

April Showers, Tiny Tim and Learning New Words

April showers bring May flowers.
Allergy relief medication Ads spring up everywhere.
Relief is in our grasp – it’s as easy as a song.

In fact this particular Ad harkens back to a lovely little ditty straight out of the American songbook.

But this is the Health Literacy Lab after all.  So instead  of focusing on the efficacy of the medicine,  let's use this Ad to demonstrate a very common way people deal with unfamiliar words and acquire new ones.

Let’s pretend we’re behind the reader’s eye and let’s follow along as they read the Ad.
The copywriters, as they so often do, are playing with two meanings of “stem” - the noun- the main body or stalk of the tulip.
And, “stem” – the verb – to block, to reduce.
In fact, these plays on words engage our mind more, thus making the Ad more memorable. (Copy writing 101)

Tiptoe through the tulips

If you're of a certain age and remember Tiny Tim – well you can hum the rest of the line. 

Stem the sniffling.    
Now here’s the hiccup.
I know sniffle, but “stem”?

Here's a teased apart description of the stages that many readers/listeners go through naturally when they encounter a new word.  These stages can all occur at once, or over time. 

#1 Exposure 

"I don't know the word.  I just skip over it for now." 
If this skipping really leaves me lost I can try and guess. 
Engaged readers may not have the nuance of “stem” (verb)  but the guess that the medicine won't make their sniffles worse.  And that is good enough for now.
Skip and Guess:  This is a universal strategy that serves us just fine – thank you.  When we come across a word we don’t recognize or know, we skip and we guess. 
That is, unless we’re in school or doing a reading comprehension task for somebody.

#2 Recognition

The next time we see the new word (stem), we recognize that we’ve seen it before.  This step can happen repeatedly.
We see the Ad again, we hear the Ad on TV, or we hear “stem” being used for something else entirely:
The President wants to stem the flow of illegal immigrants into the US.
Health officials say they have not been able to stem the tide of Zika-carrying mosquito into Texas and Florida.

#3   Comprehension

At some point we refine our guess about what the word means.  Sometimes we do this by simple deduction.
We use context:
"Well, the medicine is for my allergies. So “stem”= something like “stop” or “make my allergies better”. 
Now that we’ve seen or heard different messages that use the new word, we have a better sense of what the word might mean.
 "I'm pretty sure 'Stem' means 'to block' or 'to stop' something. 

#4 Production 
At some point in the future, we use the new word.
Sometimes we’re right on the mark:
“This medicine did stem my allergies.  You should try it.”
And sometimes, not so much.
“This summer I want you kids to stem the amount of sand you track into this house.”

But that’s OK.  Our language is always changing.


Another cool thing brought to you by our human capacity for language. 

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