How to Get a Big Vocabulary

by Robert Pondiscio
December 20th, 2012

Many of us remember studying word lists to prepare for SAT tests.  But if you have a big vocabulary, it is highly unlikely you developed it through memorization.  Consider that a 12th-grade student who scored well enough on the verbal portion of the SAT to get into a selective college has a vocabulary somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000 words.  Do the math:  acquiring such a sizable vocabulary by rote would mean learning 10-20 new words every day until freshman orientation, assuming you came home from the delivery room having learned your first few dozen words.

Clearly that’s not what happens.  If you are verbally dexterous, the odds are good that you grew up in a language-rich home with parents who talked and read to you a lot. Over the years, you also probably learned and read a lot across a wide variety of subjects.

With Common Core State Standards emphasizing the importance of academic vocabulary and the release of new NAEP results raising awareness that vocabulary mirrors reading comprehension levels (no surprise to readers of this blog) vocabulary is hot.  Words are the new black.  E.D. Hirsch entered the fray with an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal the other day noting that NAEP confirms that “students don’t know the words they need to flourish as learners, earners or citizens.” He points out for the 24,587th time in a public forum (plus or minus 4) what should have years ago become a hardcore, non-negotiable, fundamental understanding among every person drawing breath and a paycheck in education:  the content kids learn in school matters.  A lot.  Content provides the context that drives vocabulary growth. Says Hirsch:

“If a child reads that ‘annual floods left the Nile delta rich and fertile for farming,’ he is less likely to intuit the meaning of the unfamiliar words “annual” and “fertile” if he is unfamiliar with Egypt, agriculture, river deltas and other such bits of background knowledge.”

The key word there is “intuit.”  Therein lies the secret to building verbal kids.  You hear an unfamiliar word, intuit what it means, and confirm and refine your understanding with each future encounter with the word until you eventually own it and it becomes part of your working vocabulary. That’s how it works.  Not by memorizing lots of words, but by being exposed to increasingly complex words in context, and coming to understand through repeated exposure what those words mean.  It’s not complicated, but it’s very, very time consuming.  It is the work of years and years of exposure to rich language and text.  But if you don’t know the context, you don’t learn the new words.  In Hirsch’s example, “annual” and “fertile” are just two more bits of stuff that go over your head if you know nothing of Egypt, the Nile, farming, etc.  Without the common knowledge, everything grinds to a screeching halt.

This is the reason we want kids to read or be read to a lot.  It exposes them to rich language; it’s not about practicing the “skill” of reading, which is not a skill at all. Even the simplest texts tend to have more rare and unique words than even the richest spoken language (the language of children’s books is more linguistically rich and complex than the conversation of even college graduates).  And this is why we want kids to learn a lot across a wide range of range of subjects:  the broader your knowledge base, the more likely you are to be able to contextualize and understand new words, as in Hirsch’s Egypt example above.  Knowledge acts as a mental dragnet.  The wider and stronger your net, the more vocabulary gets scooped up.  More content equals more context equals more fertile ground for vocabulary growth to occur.

The idea that verbal proficiency, reading comprehension, and a broad, content-rich curriculum are inextricably linked is at the very heart of the Core Knowledge movement—an awareness that has gradually sunk in over decades and been enshrined in Common Core State Standards.  In an upcoming article in City Journal, on which his Journal op-ed was based, Hirsch notes the stakes for vocabulary acquisition couldn’t be any higher.  There is “a positive correlation between a student’s vocabulary size in grade 12, the likelihood that she will graduate from college, and her future level of income.”  The correlation between vocabulary size and life chances are “as firm as any correlations in educational research,” Hirsch writes.

Connect the dots:  Reading comprehension correlates with vocabulary level.  Vocabulary level correlates with life outcomes.  Those old Reader’s Digest quizzes had it right: It really does pay to increase your word power.  Vocabulary is destiny.  Ed reformers, heed Hirsch:

“The most secure way to predict whether an educational policy is likely to help restore the middle class and help the poor is to focus on the question: ‘Is this policy likely to translate into a large increase in the vocabularies of 12th-graders?’ When questions of fairness and inequality come up in discussions, parents would do well to ask whether it’s fair of schools to send young people into a world where they suffer from vocabulary inequality.”

So how do we get kids where we need them to be?  There is no substitute for reading widely.  We are unlikely to build a strong vocabulary without regular exposure to the sophisticated language of print.  And not just any print, but print of increasing complexity and breadth across subject matter.  This is really no longer “nice to do” but essential.  Job One.

All I want for Christmas is for Common Core critics, rather that retailing scare stories that CCSS will replace literature with readings of government reports on agriculture and insulation regulations in English class, to temper their criticism even a little bit with an acknowledgement that maybe a coherent, content-rich curriculum (which CCSS does not, cannot mandate but strongly recommends) might not be the worst thing to happen to our schools.