Using Verbpathy and Emotion-Based Associations in Vocabulary Pedagogy

May 17th, 2017 | By | Category: In the Classroom
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Patrick T. Randolph author image for summer 2017

Patrick T. Randolph


—I. Introduction

Learning vocabulary is about making connections with the soul of the word.

image of brain filled with words


To learn English lexical items (e.g., single-word terms, phrases, and idioms), students need to forge immediate and emotionally charged connections with the words. These connections should arouse the learners’ attention, lessen the abstract nature of the lexical items, and transform them into concrete subjects of study; the connections should help English language learners (ELLs) feel the terms, personalize them, and own them in a confident manner (Randolph, 2015).

How, one might ask, can we help our ELLs make such connections in an efficient and effective way? Two teaching tools that have proven to work are verbpathy and emotion-based associations—two components of my Head-to-Toe Method of Associations for Vocabulary Acquisition. To illustrate how these tools operate, I will first explain what verbpathy is, highlight the main differences between verbpathy and connotation, and show how emotion-based associations play an important role in vocabulary acquisition. Next, I will show how I use verbpathy and emotion-based associations in my daily vocabulary lessons, and I will conclude with student responses regarding the tools’ helpfulness and usefulness in terms of learning vocabulary.

II. Defining Verbpathy and Demonstrating the Need for Emotion

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A Look at Verbpathy

Verbpathy is a tool I created to help my ELLs make an easy, immediate, intuitive, and feeling-based connection to English lexical items. The concept of verbpathy means exactly how it appears—“word-feeling;” that is, verb meaning “word” and pathy meaning “feeling.” In essence, verbpathy is a simple tool that ELLs can use “to intuitively ‘feel’ the deeper meanings, registers, and usages of words” (Randolph, 2016, p. 4).

How verbpathy is employed is straightforward: I ask the students to assign a positive feeling or a negative feeling to a lexical item and explain why it evoked that specific response. I should note that my earlier version of verbpathy included three attributes: positive feelings, negative feelings, and neutral ones (Randolph, 2015; Randolph, 2016). Previously I had argued that a “neutral feeling” toward a lexical item was possible. However, given the current research in neuroscience (Davidson & Begley, 2013; LeDoux, 2003; Sousa, 2010), Freud’s (1915/1963) work on the unconscious (which is being revisited and supported by recent work in neuroscience [Eagleman, 2011]), and my own insight that all lexical items have a positive feeling, a negative feeling, or share both qualities, I no longer hold the belief that a term can be neutral. Moreover, Medina (2009) points out that “[e]motionally arousing events tend to be better remembered than neutral events” (p. 79). My observations throughout the years support this, for I noticed that when students assigned a “neutral feeling” to a term, it did not have an impact on them. Assigning a positive or negative attribute, however, always made a very deep impression on the students during the encoding phase of learning.

Some Basic Differences in Verbpathy and Connotation
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Although the concepts of verbpathy and connotation may appear, at first glance, to be the same, they are actually quite different. Below are the main differences between the two.

Verbpathy Negates Neutrality

Connotations tend to be positive, negative, or neutral (Folse, 2004), but verbpathy negates any notion of a neutral feeling toward a term; it strictly adheres to positive feelings, negative feelings, or a combination of the two.

Here are some examples:

Blissful, smile—these elicit positive feelings;

Depression, stress—these evoke negative feelings;

Habit, take advantage of—these could share both positive and negative feelings.

Verbpathy Is Student Generated

Connotations are most often influenced by culture or one’s immediate environment; that is, they are frequently culture based or region based. Verbpathy, however, is unique to each student; it is student generated, student centered. Verbpathy is based on the individual “feel” of the term. Let’s take be tied up—as in “be very busy”—as an example. This carries a “negative connotation” in American culture, but a student recently assigned a positive feeling of verbpathy to it because he thought that “being tied up” implies one is busy, and, if one is busy, he/she is being productive and contributing to society in a positive, helpful way.

Verbpathy Disregards the Connotation-Denotation Duality

A connotation is an alternative view of a word’s denotation, but verbpathy disregards this duality by reacting or responding directly to a term in a pure, genuine light. Verbpathy assesses the definition of a term and assigns the appropriate feeling based on the student’s “intuitive” perspective and “inside-the-moment” connection with the term in question; consequently, verbpathy helps transform the abstract quality of lexical items into concrete feelings that are tangible and easily understood.

Addressing the Need for Emotions
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Using the tool of emotion-based associations is a necessary and logical step once the verbpathy of a term has been established. As with the above, a great deal of research has shown how crucial emotions are in promoting effective recall and productive learning (Damasio, 1994; Davidson & Begley, 2013; LeDoux, 1996; Sousa, 2010). One need look no further than daily personal experience to prove this point. What are the moments in a day that stand out far and above the rest? They are, to be sure, the moments of emotion. We won’t necessarily remember the random person who walked past us without acknowledging us or the person absorbed with his/her cell phone, but we will remember the person who greeted us with a smile and consequently sent a number of neurotransmitters rushing about in our brains to create a happy, emotional state.

In the fall of 2013, I conducted a survey (N=42) on the need and use of human emotions in learning vocabulary for three writing classes in an American university Intensive English Program (Randolph, 2013). The levels of the classes were low-intermediate, low-advanced, and high-advanced. The ages of the students ranged from 18 to 35 and a variety of countries were represented: Brazil, China, Iraq, Japan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia. The majors that these students were pursuing were equally diverse: accounting, biology, chemistry, civil engineering, computer science, education, electrical engineering, finance, physics, statistics, and teacher training.

The results of the survey were striking: All 42 respondents said that using emotions was a fundamental necessity for learning vocabulary. If emotion-based associations were not made or involved in the learning process, then they would seldom, if ever, retain the meanings and the understanding of how to use the vocabulary terms. In short, emotions—for these students—were necessary for acquiring the lexical items and being able to transfer them to their long-term memories.

III. Using Verbpathy and Emotion-Based Associations in Class

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I start the vocabulary lessons by writing two to three lexical terms on the whiteboard with example sentences for each. In addition, I write the words part of speech, verbpathy, and emotion. My students receive a handout with the same information on it.

One important rule of thumb is that I never give the students the definitions or parts of speech for the terms. Instead I elicit these from the students by supplying them with the examples mentioned above, and, if need be, additional examples. If the students are responsible for correctly defining the terms and assigning the appropriate part of speech, then they take immediate ownership of the lexical items in question, and, they also will have a clearer and more intuitive grasp of the verbpathy (Randolph, 2016).

What the students initially see, then, would look something like this:

shed light on: ______________________________________

Part of speech: _____________________________________

Verbpathy: __________________

Emotion: __________________

Example: The professor shed light on one of the most complicated concepts in this morning’s class, and afterward the students were able to clearly understand it.

Once I elicit the definition and part of speech, I ask the students what the verbpathy of the term is and request a reason for why they assigned that particular feeling. Using our above idiom as an example, it is common for the students to assign it a positive feeling for the verbpathy because explaining something clearly or clarifying a concept is a good thing, something positive, and helpful.

A number of beneficial consequences come from assigning the verbpathy of terms:

  1. Students need to justify why they assigned the verbpathy that they did;
  2. This requires them to immediately think about the term in an analytical way; and
  3. Talking and thinking about something immediately after being exposed to it will help solidify it in the learner’s mind. (For more on the third consequence, see Craik & Lockhart’s 1972 article, “Levels of Processing: A Framework for Memory Research.”) So, the act of assigning verbpathy and justifying it is a very effective metacognitive exercise for students because they are both feeling the terms and analyzing those feelings using logic and reason.

Next, I ask the students what emotion or emotions they associate with the term in question and why. With respect to our current example of shed light on, students have responded with “joy,” “happiness,” “excitement,” “relief,” and the “feelings of confidence.” These feelings, they claim, are the results of “shedding light on” something. When we work on the emotion-based associations, my students often offer vignettes about a memory associated with the emotion that they connect with the lexical item. The simple act, then, of assigning an emotion to a term actually becomes a very rich and complex experience of forming multiple connections that center around the term.

To sum up, our work on the board and on their handouts would now look like the following:

shed light on: explain something clearly; clarify

Part of speech: an idiom functioning as a verb group

Verbpathy: +

Emotion: joy, excitement, relief, confidence

Example: The professor shed light on one of the most complicated concepts in this morning’s class, and afterward the students were able to clearly understand it.

The articulation of verbpathy and the emotions also helps set the stage for student-driven example sentences. Once the verbpathy and emotions have been discussed, I have the students give spoken example sentences and reuse the terms to nurture a sense of comfort and confidence in using the newly acquired vocabulary. This also gives them an opportunity to take risks, make mistakes, and learn from their errors. Students have commented that employing verbpathy and the emotion-based associations help considerably in terms of creating a good understanding of how to effectively use the terms. For homework, I have the students produce original example sentences to reinforce and review the work done in class.

IV. Student Responses and Reported Benefits

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To assess what my current students think of the verbpathy and emotion components and whether or not they are helpful, I conducted a short survey of three questions. These are as follows:

1. Do the tools of verbpathy and emotion-based associations help you when learning new vocabulary items?

Yes         No

2. Do you think these components will be useful for you to continue to use after this class?

Yes         No

3. Explain in detail how these tools help or do not help you to learn vocabulary.

This semester I had three writing classes (one low-advanced and two sections of high-advanced) in which I taught vocabulary and used these two tools. In my low-advanced class (N=10), all 10 respondents confirmed that the tools helped them acquire the vocabulary, and seven claimed that they would continue to use them in the future. In the first section of my high-advanced class (N=17), all 17 found the tools helpful and 16 said they would use them after completing our course. The second section of the high-advanced class (N=15) was similar to the other classes; 14 stated both verbpathy and emotion-based associations were helpful and 13 maintained that they would continue to employ them in the future to help acquire new vocabulary terms. Overall, then, the majority of the students found these components helpful in learning new vocabulary, and they also found them to be useful tools to use in the future when studying vocabulary.

The reasons the students gave regarding how verbpathy and the emotion-based associations helped them focused on four points:

  1. They liked how the tools help them immediately make concrete connections to the lexical items;
  2. They claimed that the components are easy to use yet take them to a deeper understanding of the terms’ meanings and registers;
  3. They asserted that the tools are simply fun; and
  4. Many like the combination of using verbpathy and the emotion-based associations because the tools help them feel the words, phrases, and idioms more intuitively, which consequently allows the students to gain control and confidence over their use.

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Concluding Remarks

Given that each student has had countless positive and negative experiences that have been—most probably—coupled with some kind of unique emotion, using verbpathy tied with emotion-based associations is a logical, natural, and immediate way to help our ELLs acquire vocabulary. In her book Habits of a Happy Brain, Loretta Graziano Breuning (2016) explains that “[h]appy moments in your past connected neurons that are there, ready to spark more happy chemicals the next time you’re in similar circumstances. Unhappy moments in your past connected neurons that are telling you what to avoid” (pp. 19-20). This “happy” versus “unhappy” or “positive” versus “negative” duality is an intrinsic structure in our brains. Moreover, this relatively simple binary concept of verbpathy coupled with emotion is a basic toolkit that is the natural process of learning, and I think using it in vocabulary pedagogy will help our ELLs develop their language in a genuinely productive way.

Correspondence concerning this article can be addressed to

Patrick T. Randolph was awarded the “Best of the TESOL Affiliates” for his presentation on vocabulary pedagogy in 2015. He teaches in PIESL at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and specializes in vocabulary acquisition, creative and academic writing, speech, and debate. He has created a number of brain-based learning activities for the language skills that he teaches, and he continues to research current topics in neuroscience, especially studies related to exercise and learning, memory, and mirror neurons. Randolph has also been involved as a volunteer with brain-imaging experiments at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He and Joseph Ruppert are now working on a creative writing book for TESOL Press’s New Ways Series. The tentative title is New Ways in Teaching Creative Writing for the ELL Community. He lives with his wife, Gamze; daughter, Aylene; and cat, Gable, in Lincoln, Nebraska.


Craik, F. I. M., & Lockhart, R. S. (1972). Levels of processing: A framework for memory research. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behaviour, 11, 671–684.

Damasio, A. (1994). Descartes’ error: Emotion, reason, and the human brain. New York, NY: Putnam and Sons.

Davidson, R. J., & Begley, S. (2013). The emotional life of your brain. New York, NY: Plume/Penguin.

Eagleman, D. M. (2011). Incognito: The secret lives of the brain. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.

Folse, K. S. (2004). Vocabulary myths. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Freud, S. (1963). General psychological theory: Papers on metapsychology. New York, NY: Collier Books/Macmillan. (Original work published 1915)

Graziano Breuning, L. (2016). Habits of a happy brain: Retrain your brain to boost your serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, & endorphin. Avon, MA: Adams Media/ F+W Media.

LeDoux, J. (1996). The emotional brain. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

LeDoux, J. (2003). Synaptic self: How our brains become who we are. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Medina, J. (2009). Brain rules: 12 principles for surviving and thriving at work, home, and school. Seattle, WA: Pear Press.

Randolph, P. T. (2013). I feel, therefore I am: Exercising the emotional brain. The ITBE Link, 41(3).  Retrieved from

Randolph, P. T. (2015). Introducing verbpathy in the English language classroom: Encouraging students to feel the essence and emotion of words. ORTESOL Journal, 32, 13-19.

Randolph, P. T. (2016). Introducing Randolph’s Head-to-Toe Method of Associations for Vocabulary Acquisition to break the Ebbinghaus curse. MinneTESOL Journal, 1-11. Retrieved from

Sousa, D. A. (2010). Mind, brain, and education: Neuroscience implications for the classroom. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.


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