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Learning Geographic Concepts and Terms

By Michael Maloney
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #79, 2007.

Becoming fluent in the specialized vocabulary of geography.
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Michael Maloney

A significant part of learning any discipline lies in learning the lexicon of that discipline. Each area of knowledge has its own specific language.

If you are like me, all you have to do is to walk into a computer store and listen to a knowledgeable customer and a knowledgeable sales consultant talking about a piece of equipment or software, and you would swear that they are speaking a completely foreign language.

The same phenomenon is true as you go from discipline to discipline across the educational spectrum. Each area of study has its own special language. If you intend to be a student in that particular knowledge area, you absolutely need to know the language of that discipline. You not only need to know how to label any feature, process, application or outcome of the discipline, you also need to understand the concepts to which that label is attached.

The Importance of Language

Here's a classic example. For a number of years, I taught a course to second-semester students at a nearby community college. These students were enrolled in a Behavioral Science program and would be working in schools, group homes, and other applied settings with clients with a variety of challenges and needs.

On the first day of class, I asked them to write down, in one minute, as many terms from behavioral science lexicon as they knew. I did not ask them to define them, simply to write down words that would be the common parlance of behavioral specialists.

Given that they already had a full semester of training, I expected them to write fluently at 20 - 30 words per minute, because that is the speed at which humans write when they don't have to think hard about what they are writing. Since some terms had more than one word, it could be conceivable that they would have written the names of fewer than 20 - 30 concepts, but they should be in the range of 20 - 30 words per minute.

I was shocked and disappointed. The top score was 15 words per minute, the median score for these fifty-odd students was 11 words per minute and the lowest score was 6. It became immediately obvious to everyone in that class that they did not know the language of their own chosen profession.

How could they hold a knowledgeable conversation with another behavioral counselor when they did not have the vocabulary? How could they understand the research articles and references, write up treatment procedures or report precisely on what they had done?

The Solution

To remedy the situation, I gave these students a glossary of the most frequently used 100 terms from the field of behavior analysis. I also gave them instructions to write each term on one side of a flashcard and to write its definition on the other side. I then told them that in order to pass the course, they had to do two one-minute vocabulary checkouts with me. They would bring in their deck of 100 cards. I would shuffle the deck and hand it back to them. They would have exactly one minute to look at the title and define the word written there. As long as they spoke quickly and without the breaks that would indicate that they were uncertain of the answer, they would be considered fluent in the use of the specialized vocabulary of their field of study. Any pauses or more than two errors in defining a term meant that the student had to appear for another checkout the next week.

In the second timing, they looked at the definition written on the back of the card and tell me the term that matched it. Because this usually involved saying only one or two words, we were able to get through many more cards in this second timing.

Humans can only flip about 50-60 cards per minute, so we were dealing with an artificial ceiling that was imposed by the motor response of flipping cards. We set the standard for fluency at 50 - 60 cards per minute with no more than 2 errors. We considered student who could accomplish this level of performance to be fluent in their knowledge of vocabulary.

A one-minute post-test at the end of the course demonstrated that almost all of the students could easily write 20 - 30 behavioral science terms in one minute.

Applications to Geography

Can we use this same procedure to teach geographic terms? I think so.

Geography does have its own specific language. When we, as ordinary mortals, look at a mountain, we see a mountain. When the trained geographer looks at a mountain, he or she may see such things as moraine-dammed lakes, geomorphic hazards, fault zones, stratovolcanic deglaciation, glacier-induced wasting, and a host of other features.

If we, as students of physical geography, wish to more completely understand and be able to communicate with geographers, their writings and teachings, we need to learn the terms they commonly use to describe exactly what they mean.

Developing a Glossary

The simplest way to learn to communicate on this level is to find and/or develop a glossary of the most commonly used geographic words involved in the study of physical geography. Many textbooks will supply such a glossary, but often in alphabetical order. As a result they are an unrelated set of concepts that are more difficult to grasp in the absence of some description, diagram or illustration. The better approach is to tie the terms to specific topics or chapters so that all of the terms concerning mountains are in one small set of cards.

The student reads about glacier-induced wasting as part of the study of the effect of erosion on mountain chains. He learns what that concept means through reading, instruction and discussion. Then he or she adds the term to his mini-glossary. This makes learning new lexicons more manageable for both teacher and student. It also adds relevance to the mix.

As with my Behavioral Science students, I would now spend some time each day helping the student to learn and to practice the new vocabulary and becoming fluent with each of the glossary terms. Each day, I would run two one-minute timings to see if they can define the term when they see its label and whether they can recognize the term given its definition. When students can do so by speaking without stumbling or cannot flip cards any faster, they have become fluent learners of this new language.

The whole process should take less than five minutes a day, including the time to chart the scores.


As with any learning, it is important that we keep a record of student progress and problems. When the student reaches the predetermined standard it alerts us to move on to the next chunk of curriculum without wasting time. It also points out difficulties when the scores go flat and no progress is observed. Watching the student and taking out the cards upon which they hesitate or make errors is one quick, simple fix. These cards are then reviewed and given additional practice before being added back into the deck.

The best way to keep such performance data on how well a student is mastering the language of a discipline, is to put the data on a chart which clearly shows the student how much they are gaining and how close they are to the fluency standard. Research data clearly shows that students with charts learn faster than students without charted data.

If you want smarter, faster kids, start charting their learning.

Using Diagrams

Once the student develops a grasp of the terminology involved in a topic or chapter, diagrams can become a helpful tool.

The diagram is designed in two ways. On one side, the diagram has all of the labels written to designate the concepts. On the other side, the exact same diagram is produced without the labels.

The student begins by seeing the labels and the attribute they describe. Once they can see and say all of the terms using the labels, they turn the diagram over and do the same task without the labels. When the student can point to each of the items on the unlabeled diagram and say their names as quickly and easily as they can carry on a conversation, they are ready to move on.


Using timed measures with homemade flash cards is a highly effective way to teach many skills. Children can almost always make up their own flash cards with a minimum of instruction and supervision. Homemade flash cards are always more effective than commercially produced decks because they more precisely target the exact terms and concepts that you want to teach. Adding the timed performance measure gives the parent and student a daily record of progress. Try this the next time you teach a geography unit.

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