Teaching through Examples
Consider these two scripts for explaining the term onomatopoeia:
“An onomatopoeia is the formation of a word from a sound associated with what is named.”
“Examples of onomatopoeias are sizzle, pop, shush, beep, boom. All of these words sound like the audible event they are trying to represent. An onomatopoeia is the formation of a word from a sound associated with what is named.”
Leading education theorist Siegfried Engelmann tells us that script B is more effective in getting students to understand what an onomatopoeia is. He points out that examples can be a much more powerful teaching tool than simply saying “here is a new concept and here are three examples of it”. In fact, there are times when leading with the examples is a more efficient routine for students to understand the underlying concept. Often, this is particularly true of abstract ideas whose definition only truly makes sense if you already understand the concept.
In our onomatopoeia example, to understand the script in example A (the definition alone), you probably already needed to know what an onomatopoeia is – which, in our example, we assume the students wouldn’t. Additionally, if we’d given just one example of an onomatopoeia, students may not have picked up on the underlying idea. They may have focussed on the surface features. From just the example of sizzle, students might interpret onomatopoeia to mean sounds made by hot objects, or words from the kitchen, or just words with multiple letter ‘z’s.