Membean: My Favorite Vocabulary Curriculum

Membean LogoMembean is my newest favorite curriculum. It covers vocabulary development, word roots, and spelling. More importantly, it runs on auto. I don’t have to teach it, I just glance at the dashboard every few days to keep my children on the straight and narrow. 

If you ever want an object lesson in differing learning styles, come and teach my 6th-grade twins. Finding curriculum that works for both children is a never-ending struggle. The girl child is a very auditory learner who likes to learn in small increments. She needs to understand the parts before the big picture means anything to her. Her twin brother, on the other hand, is a visual learner and needs to understand the big picture before he can even begin to grasp the parts.

I find that I am always adjusting my teaching style and curriculum to ensure that they work for both children. As you can imagine, this involves a fair bit of work, and thought, for me.

We were between vocabulary programs when I read about Membean. I admit that I tried it with more than a touch of trepidation, as we’ve not had good results with online programs in the past. Both my children are excellent test takers and quickly figure out how to game the system. Too many online programs have fallen prey to my children’s ability to work out what the answer isn’t and to give the correct answer without knowing the material (ALEKS math comes to mind).

With Membean, however, so far, so good. Neither child has gamed the system, been bored, or struggled because it is not teaching to his or her strengths. The boy child particularly likes the program because you don’t have to spend too much time on any one word. Each word cycles by many times. His sister isn’t penalized because she likes to master a word and then move on.

The developers of Membean truly understand that the more modalities you employ, the better your memory will work, and that repetition builds confidence. For each word, you are given a short passage where the word is used and then you are asked to choose which of the given definitions is correct. Then two definitions pop up. One is a formal, dictionary-type definition and the other a short, quick-glance definition. For example:

“A malapropism is the unintentional humorous mistake you make when you use a word that sounds similar to the word you actually intended to use, but means something completely different.”


“Quick glance: mixed up words.”

You get to read the definitions and hear them being read, hitting both auditory and visual modalities. Then there is a memory hook:

“Mallard Propeller: When the mallard kicked his feet like a boat propeller, he tried to utter ‘vroom,’ but he made a malapropism and instead bellowed ‘quack!’”

If you don’t like the given memory hook, you can find another one or make up your own.

Another section of the page breaks the word down into its roots:

mal → bad, evil

prop → proper, fitting

-ism → distinctive trait, usually of language

It then gives a history of the word:

“Malapropism was coined from the character Mrs. Malaprop in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s play The Rivals; she is always making language errors as she speaks because she really doesn’t know the meanings of the words that she is using. Mrs. Malaprop is so-called because she makes ‘bad fits’ for words, such as using ‘allegory’ in ‘she’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile’—she should have used ‘alligator,’ not ‘allegory.’”

You can view a “word constellation,” a map of related words, to help you place the word in your existing vacabulary, and then you can look at related synonyms and antonyms. I was fascinated to see how well this word constellation works for both my children. My son looks at it and see a big picture, my daughter looks at it and sees the parts, and it works for both kids.

In the word theater you get to see a short video of the word in action. In this instance, you get to laugh along with Laurel and Hardy. I cannot tell you how important this is for my very, very visual son. He reads the definitions, watches the videos, and looks at the word constellation—and then the word is cemented in his memory.

The important thing is that your child does not need to employ all the modalities. He or she can choose to learn the words in the way that is easiest for him or her. Children can spend as much or as little time learning a word as they wish, because the word will return over and over again during the year.

When students feel they’ve spent sufficient time learning the word, they click “next” and are then asked to spell the word. (Make sure you set things so that the student has to spell the entire word out, because one of the settings autocompletes the word.) Every few words, a little test pops up where your child will be quizzed on some of the words already learned. A student who misses the word is sent back to restudy it. There is a constant cycle of learning new words and testing old ones.

A word is never learned and then left to be forgotten—it is forever being brought to the fore, tested, and further cemented in memory.

The program’s dashboard sorts the vocabulary into different categories: words you’ve started learning, words on which you are making good progress, words that are almost cemented in your memory, and words that are firmly cemented in your memory. The kids and mom alike really appreciate the metrics on the dashboard, where you can see the average time spent on each session, how many sessions you’ve had, how many words you’ve learned, how many you have still to learn, where those words are in the learning process, what roots you’ve learned, and much more.

I highly recommend this program for 5th  graders and up. Don’t be put off by the testing-centered start page. If you have kids who are in middle or high school, just sign them up for the SAT program using a “test date” that coincides with the proposed end of your school year (you can change this date in the settings.) The SAT program teaches 2,000 words and their roots. Once your children have finished with the SAT words, you can have them learn the GRE words. I figure that once they know all those words, their vocabularies will be second to none.

About the Author

Sherene is a corporate escapee and transplant from deepest, darkest Africa who spends much time defending her accent and word choices to her American-born husband and children. She uses an eclectic mix of educational philosophies with her twins. These range from Objectivist to Classical to Unschooling—it all depends on the subjects involved. She sees herself as an educational facilitator and is constantly on the lookout to provide the best teacher for each subject. Sometimes that teacher is herself, sometimes it is the kid him/herself, and sometimes it is an online course, a co-op, or a tutor. All that matters is that her children continue to thrive and have a passion for learning.

Sherene will be a speaker at the VaHomeschoolers 2013 conference.

Membean’s developers include Brett Brunner, a Charlottesville-area Latin teacher, homeschool dad, and VaHomeschoolers’ 2013 conference featured speaker.

Originally published in VaHomeschoolers Newsletter (now the VaHomeschoolers Voice), a bi-monthly homeschool journal produced by The Organization of Virginia Homeschoolers for our members. Not a member? Join now and don’t miss another issue!

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