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.

 

 

 

46 Comments »

  1. The Common Core standards could certainly require much more content knowledge, including within the discipline of English, say, understanding the classical foundations of rhetoric, but they chose not to. They are less content focused than some existing state and especially international standards for ELA.

    Comment by Tom Hoffman — December 20, 2012 @ 12:55 pm

  2. Yes, the Common Core State Standards “could certainly require much more content knowledge” but then they wouldn’t be standards, they’d be a curriculum.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — December 20, 2012 @ 12:59 pm

  3. May I just clap my hands and stomp my feet for the idea of words and a wide vocabulary?

    This year, as I engage in private tutoring of elementary students, I have noticed what a lack of exposure to vocabulary (and the ideas expressed by words) can do to a student’s ability to comprehend and solve story problems-yes MATH depends on vocabulary.

    Comment by Cherry — December 20, 2012 @ 1:49 pm

  4. (Edited version of above.)

    Of course reading comprehension correlates with vocabulary level. However, being continually exposed to words in context as a means of learning their definitions is a crude way of increasing one’s vocabulary. Words have discrete definitions, often many.

    Why not accelerate the process and teach students, young and old, kindergartners to college students, when and how to proficiently use a dictionary to identify the exact definition being used by the author? Increase the student’s vocabulary. Increase his ability to comprehend.

    Teach them this at an early age. Make it part of the learning process for every subject, not just reading.

    Comment by Colin — December 20, 2012 @ 3:43 pm

  5. I don’t mean to suggest that there is no point in explicit vocabulary instruction. There certainly is, otherwise we wouldn’t have spent all those hours cramming vocabulary for the SAT. But the larger point remains: only the smallest fraction of the words we have at our command are explicitly taught and learned. And even those, I would argue, are more likely to “stick” if we encounter them in reading and speech in our daily lives.

    By no means would I suggest students shouldn’t have a good dictionary at arm’s length. But let’s not kid ourselves that he or she looks up a word once and has it forever. It’s part of the process of encountering-and-familiarizing. It won’t become part of of the student’s working vocabulary without repeated exposures.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — December 20, 2012 @ 3:58 pm

  6. I am a 7th grade English teacher and am now halfway through my district’s and state’s Common Core training, such as it is.

    Vocabulary isn’t even on the radar screen. “Academic” vocabulary, yes, but the critical notion championed here, that teaching content is teaching reading, is foreign. The Common Core is instead understood mainly as the teaching of “Complex Text Reading Skills” and any “complex text” will do. The toolkit for the job is the existing body of “Reading Comprehension Skills”. The idea of creating a carefully sequenced curriculum across the disciplines grade-by-grade in order to build general vocabulary has not occurred to anyone in authority. And we are utterly at sea regarding the issue of non-fiction reading. Who teaches it? We have no clue, except that a model “curriculum” suggested to us by the state—and uncritically adopted by our district—appears to assign all the burden to the English teachers. Meanwhile, social studies teachers in our state are working on their own new curriculum that my colleagues describe as being “skills based”.

    What’s the plan to get out of this swamp?

    Comment by bill eccleston — December 20, 2012 @ 4:07 pm

  7. I can tell you MY plan, which is a kind of reverse Gresham’s Law: let good information drive out the bad. The more teachers understand where language proficiency and vocabulary come from, the more likely they are to push back, and say, “Wait a minute…”

    You might also want to share this with your district worthies:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/susan-pimentel/the-role-of-fiction-in-th_b_2279782.html

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — December 20, 2012 @ 4:20 pm

  8. I have no argument with the idea that vocabulary is important, and that a content-rich curriculum is vitally important. I do have some thoughts and disagreements with what I perceive is conventional wisdom about language learning. For what it’s worth, I have explained and developed these thoughts in two articles on my website. One is “Suspicions of Language Learning”, at http://www.brianrude.com/langsus.htm. The other is “Some Doubts About Learning By Immersion”, which is at http://www.brianrude.com/immersion.htm.

    Comment by Brian Rude — December 20, 2012 @ 6:00 pm

  9. I fear Bill’s pessimism is justified. My middle school colleagues seem fixated on what the new Common Core tests are going to look like, just as now everyone is fixated on the STAR tests. Once these are rolled out, I suspect our panicked leaders will latch on to any plausible seeming approach to quickly raise our scores. They’ll buy more cleverly-packaged test prep products. New software with simulated Common Core tests. Rejigger the current useless “intervention” programs to “align” with Common Core. High-stakes testing elicits this kind of knee-jerk, short term thinking. No superintendent will be brave enough to say, “We’re going to raise 8th grade scores by teaching kindergarteners about the Renaissance.”

    I suspect districts won’t adopt a content-rich curriculum unless someone tells them –explicitly –to do so.

    Comment by Ponderosa — December 20, 2012 @ 8:48 pm

  10. The problem is that very few educators feel comfortable defining content rich. To do so specifies a value judgement and I have found a lot of teachers are very reluctant to say that some types of content is worth studying more than others. Instead they focus on engagement and creativity. I get it, I am a liberal that often cringes when I hear my more conservative family members blame this or that for the worlds problem, but I do think we may need to have this conversation in schools if the content rich curriculm will ever be revived.

    Comment by DC Parent — December 20, 2012 @ 9:27 pm

  11. Unfortunately, there appears to be a strong correlation between poverty and vocabulary deficiencies, at all grade levels.

    The burning question remains, how does school/society not only get this message across to young mothers living in poverty, but also get them to act on it? This, coupled with their often overwhelming home/personal lives, combines to make this a monumental obstacle to overcome.

    Someone, some entity, needs to tackle this problem and take it to scale. Bill Gates, are you out there?

    Comment by Paul Hoss — December 21, 2012 @ 10:40 am

  12. Paul,

    A couple of thoughts on that. First, I’m a little more sanguine about parents as a lever than most people. That said, I do not think that we can get parents who are poorly educated and not readers suddenly engaging their children in Socratic dialogue and reading hours a day en masse. But I’ve long thought you can begin to change behaviors over time with public awareness campaigns similar to those that convinced most of us to stop driving drunk and throwing trash on the street. But I also believe we need to do a better job as educators creating not just “print rich” classrooms but “language rich” classrooms, immersing low-SES kids in the most language rich vocabulary hour after hour day after day. I’m of the mind that a lot of the things we do as teachers we do reflexively, unthinking, because someone expects us to do it, or we heard that it’s research-based, etc. The “print-rich” classroom is a good example. Word walls, teacher-made charts, aim and standard on the board, we do these things often because “that’s what they want to see” when they cruise or rooms. But if you understand the why, it changes your practice. If you understand, per Hirsch’s point, the correlation between vocabulary on life chances, that’s as “big picture” and concrete as it gets. From such understandings, I think, changes in behavior and practice spring.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — December 21, 2012 @ 10:56 am

  13. Robert,

    Standards define what students should know and be able to do. This includes content knowledge, like “demonstrate knowledge of eighteenth-, nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century foundational works of American literature.” There could be a lot more of that, handled more systematically, but there isn’t.

    They also omit standards like this (from MA): “Identify and analyze characteristics of genres (satire, parody, allegory, pastoral) that overlap or cut across the lines of genre classifications such as poetry, prose, drama, short story, essay, and editorial” which call for more specific content knowledge within a discipline without completely circumscribing it.

    The CCS equivalent is “Analyze a case in which grasping point of view requires distinguishing what is directly stated in a text from what is really meant (e.g., satire, sarcasm, irony, or understatement),” which seems specifically tailored to reduce the amount of ELA content knowledge necessary to answer the question.

    Comment by Tom Hoffman — December 21, 2012 @ 12:52 pm

  14. Robert,

    Thank you for posting the article about the role of literature in English class; our district and school seem to be under the impression that language arts classes will be almost exclusively dedicated to reading informational text. A few questions: is it ever effective to explicitly teach vocabulary to students? My school’s English department has been teaching weekly “SAT lists” of random vocabulary words for years. As a math teacher, I have always operated on the assumption that it makes much more sense to teach these words in the context of the content. For example, a student could be required to memorize the meaning of “interest” but wouldn’t have a real understanding of interest without working with the math involved in computing interest. A student could also learn the meaning of correlation, but would only gain a true understanding of the word in the context of a math or statistics course.

    Comment by Kevin — December 21, 2012 @ 12:52 pm

  15. I mean equivalent in form there, btw. The CCS asks for an analysis, an act, which could probably be undertaken with no specific content knowledge. That is, you could analyze an ironic statement without knowing the word “irony.” There’s really no way you can identify genres without being taught what the genres are explicitly.

    Comment by Tom Hoffman — December 21, 2012 @ 12:58 pm

  16. Forgive me Tom, but I think you’re being a bit disingenuous here. Do you really want CCSS to describe in detail the specific content and work of literature students should learn and read? Or would that be an attack on teacher autonomy? I think we both know that any attempt to be specific would quickly be attacked as an attempt to impose a canon.

    The best hope — no, the ONLY hope — is to have standards that describe outcomes and then train educators to the understanding that a broad body of body of knowledge is fundamental not to those disciplines themselves, but to literacy. I’m fond of saying “if you’re not building background knowledge, you’re not teaching reading.” This is still not a common understanding among literacy teachers. If it was, you would see fairly well defined curricula at the district and state levels that described what we expect kids to know–not because we want to play all-knowing, authoritative canon-maker, but because it’s an indispensible element of our common language.

    You observe “CCS asks for an analysis, an act, which could probably be undertaken with no specific content knowledge.” This very statement betrays not just a bias but, with all respect, a fundamental ignorance. No, you cannot analyze anything at all with no specific content knowledge. “Analysis” like reading comprehension, critical thinking, problem-solving, etc. are not abstract skills. They are better regarded as a process you perform ON specific content knowledge. And that takes us right back where we started. Standards are not — cannot — dictate curriculum choices. But they can make it clear as CCSS does that the entire edifice rests on broad, coherent knowledge. The rest is up to us.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — December 21, 2012 @ 1:22 pm

  17. Robert,

    As a paid-in-full CK choir member, I of course agree with your original posting and all your comments. But an aspect of the education debate puzzles me.

    As you note, it is still not a common understanding among literacy teachers that teaching content knowledge is teaching reading. That’s due to what teachers are taught in ed. schools, but also because so many K-12 teachers, like most other college graduates, never had a wide and deep liberal arts education. No truly well-read and reflective person can doubt that content knowledge is an essential foundation for reading comprehension, and for higher order, analytical, critical thinking.

    But why aren’t way more current and retired college professors in the forefront, loudly pushing for far more content knowledge for incoming college students? Professors as a group can’t be accused of being right-wing, racist, sexist, classist, and all the other epithets promiscuously thrown around to squelch debate. Wouldn’t professors want to teach better prepared students, in addition to wanting better K-12 educations for their own kids?

    Comment by John Webster — December 21, 2012 @ 2:44 pm

  18. Robert,

    There is a lot of room between what’s in the CCSS and a mandated grade level reading list. For example, the direct predecessor to CCSS from Achieve, the American Diploma Project, included this standard: “H7. Analyze works of literature for what they suggest about the historical period in which they were written.” That’s a stronger content standard than the equivalent in CCSS.

    I certainly think it is appropriate to want students to be able to speak in terms of key movements in American art and literature.

    I’m really most concerned with the lack of English disciplinary content. The CCSS ostensibly emphasizes disciplinary vocabulary, but where is the disciplinary vocabulary in English to be defined? The core concepts in English are just not there!

    And yes, I understand that if one reads “Paul Krugman is mildly annoyed by the austerian response to the Great Recession,” you don’t know that’s understatement if you don’t read Krugman. But if I DO know the background content, then the actual analysis is fairly trivial, whether or not I know the term “understatement.”

    Comment by Tom Hoffman — December 21, 2012 @ 3:20 pm

  19. Robert,

    I’ll have to respectfully disagree with some of what you said. Maybe I’m just naive but I believe parents, especially parents living in poverty, can be enormous difference makers, but only if they’re approached on the same scale as anti-alcohol, anti-smoking, anti-littering campaigns of the past.

    So why couldn’t we, as a society sponsor and promote said campaigns. Have the hospital of their birth and their pediatrician join the campaign with literature and regular check ups to see if anything is getting done.

    As I mentioned in Common Sense, “Text4Baby, a service that sends free messages to women who are pregnant or whose babies are less than a year old, provides them with information and reminders to improve their health and the health of their babies…The service is made available through a broad partnership of community health organizations, wireless carriers, business, health care providers, and government health agencies is catching on like wildfire. To date, about 135,00 women have signed up – and organizers have set a new goal of reaching one million users by the end of 2012 (there are four million births in the US each year).

    If the mothers in question learn the material, adhere to its principles, and send their three to four year olds to state licensed preschool programs, and their five year olds to kindergarten ready to learn, society could somehow reward these parents/guardians monetarily. Why not?”

    Come on, Robert. Get on board.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — December 21, 2012 @ 5:17 pm

  20. “One plus one equals two” said Pondiscio.
    “I have to respectfully disagree,” countered Hoss. “It’s two.”

    http://blog.coreknowledge.org/2010/07/27/kindergarten-ready-standards-try-parenting-psas-instead/

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — December 21, 2012 @ 6:44 pm

  21. I think I have more faith in parents than your post portended for them. While one plus one does equal two, one must also expect it to be so. Great Expectations and all that…

    Comment by Paul Hoss — December 21, 2012 @ 7:28 pm

  22. If you want to see disagreement, that’s your right. I don’t see it. I’ve been saying what you’re saying for a long time now. I don’t believe that it’s the ONLY thing we need to do to close the vocabulary and knowledge gap, but a strong, simple PSA campaign aimed at encouraging cognitively beneficial parenting habits makes all the sense in the world to me. Always has.

    To my mind the two most most useful, largely unpulled, levers in education improvement are curriculum and parenting.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — December 21, 2012 @ 7:33 pm

  23. Not my intention to disagree on this point. I think we’re both on the same page. Merry/Holly!

    Comment by Paul Hoss — December 21, 2012 @ 8:49 pm

  24. I agree that a public campaign would be wonderful. But right now teachers influence future parents. Some of my 12th grade students have children; most of them will have children within the next 10 years. I tell them often how important it is to read to their children. I tell them about the connection between vocabulary and school success. We talk about the difference in reading vocabulary and speaking vocabulary. My students, who are in the bottom 10% of my district and in jeopardy of not graduating, are very thoughtful about how them came to be in this situation. Like most people, they want to do better for themselves and for their children. We need to take advantage of this opportunity to influence them.

    Comment by kelsey — December 21, 2012 @ 9:29 pm

  25. Thanks for that link, Robert, and I will share that.

    Well, I certainly do wish you luck with your reverse Gresham’s Law though I argue that if there’s any arena where Gresham’s law works to perfection, it is in education and it’s particular permutation is called “Curly’s Law.” Curly’s Law states that, in education, if there is a choice among a good, a questionable, and an utterly idiotic idea, the idiotic will win every time.

    Comment by bill eccleston — December 22, 2012 @ 10:25 am

  26. >All I want for Christmas is for Common Core critics…to temper their criticism even a little bit with an acknowledgement that maybe a coherent, content-rich curriculum…might not be the worst thing to happen to our schools.

    Our area of focus is math, and we may be critics, but we support a common curriculum, just not a bad one.

    ccssimath.blogspot.com

    Comment by ccssi — December 24, 2012 @ 12:54 pm

  27. But the larger point remains: only the smallest fraction of the words we have at our command are explicitly taught and learned.

    This is not what much research into vocabulary acquisition (especially of elementary students) seems to indicate. See the work of Stahl, Biemiller, Feitelson, Whitehurst, Beck & McKeown, Cain and Oakhill, and quite a few others. The ability of children to add word meanings through “intuiting” and inferring via wide reading is in fact rather limited. In most cases (I think is was Feitelman who gave a figure of 80%) the student has had some direct explanation of the word and has not inferred many meanings from context.

    The vast discrepancy in vocabulary is in place long before children can read for themselves, and some of the differences are due not only to the vocabulary size of the speakers in the home environment, but to the adults’ level of elaboration, scaffolding and paraphrasing in dialogue with the child. Parents who use rich language with their young children often regularly paraphrase without even thinking about it (“Cease and desist! Stop it right now!”) and may not consider this “explicit” explanation, but it is. Also, see Carey’s work on the process of “fast mapping” and the role of explicit and memorable intitial exposure to make further contextual learning possible.

    Unfortunately I’ve got most of my reference books on the topic at work so can’t look up cites for you, but you can easily find them yourself.

    Isobel Beck’s work is quite useful, but a more promising take on how to teach vocabulary explicitly in schools is Biemiller’s Words Worth Teaching: Closing the Vocabulary Gap which builds on evidence that children learn a core vocabulary of words in approximately the same order, and that both low and high-vocabulary children can add new word meanings to their vocabulary at about the same rate, suggesting that effective intervention can greatly enhance vocabulary growth. OTOH, studies demonstrate little effect from “wide reading” per se, or from exposure alone. Also, a recent work (Beyond Decoding by Richard Wagner et alia has a comprehensive overview of the complex relationship between vocabulary and text comprehension, which is not as linear as one might expect.

    Of course content-rich curricula (CK, anyone?), reading aloud of great literature, parenting education, preschool language development programs and so on are part of the solution.

    But while children may learn words like “delta” from repeated exposure, sophisticated vocabulary words are often so infrequent that this strategy will not be effective. Words like jentacular, inchoate, chthonic, lucubrate, crepuscular, autochthonous (all words I encountered in 7th grade in “self-selected reading”) appear so rarely that a student –even one who reads as much as I did, 300+ adult books per year — will seldom encounter these words often enough to intuit their meanings through repeated exposure.

    Comment by palisadesk — December 26, 2012 @ 4:42 pm

  28. Dear “Palisadesk” Thanks for this informed comment. You are right that the evidence clearly shows that explicit word study is helpful. One-sided emphasis from either the implicit or explicit school in vocabulary study is unwarranted. I have become persuaded by the as yet unanswered deductive argument that one needs to learn between 25 and 60 thousand words by grade 12 to have a fair chance of graduating from college, and yet one does not, cannot learn that many words by explicit means. This arithmetical argument was put forth in a famous article by Anderson and Nagy, accepted by the great George A. Miller. I once asked Prof. Beck if she had ever answered that argument. Her reply: “Not in print.” And with Prof. Whitehurst I raised the question of opportunity cost. If the classroom spends a lot of time on explicit word study that comes at the expense of substantive knowledge gain — which is the chief source of vocabulary gain. Whitehurst agreed with this general point about limiting the time spent on explicit word study. Another persuasive point made by Miller is the case of nouns. One does not know the noun without knowing the thing — again an argument for knowledge gain as the key to vocabulary gain. And so, while I’m an admirer of Both Profs Biemiller and Beck, there is no large-scale evidence that a big emphasis on explicit study in school will lead to the gains and gap narrowings that we need to achieve. No one doubts that explicit word study in moderation can speed things up. But it is self-defeating to spend more than a few minutes a day on such study at the expense of knowledge gain. Thanks for bringing up this crucial debate within the research community.This issue of opportunity cost is the chief policy issue.

    Comment by E D Hirsch — December 26, 2012 @ 10:47 pm

  29. I have degrees in political science and librarianship, not education, so this may be a naive question. Why are we not teaching word foundations instead of just explicit words? When I was in 8th grade I had a one year course in addition to English that was completely focused on the study of words, 3 weeks on German Roots, 3 weeks on French roots words, a week on homonyms, about 2 months on Greek and Latin roots. I am approximating here, but you get the point. I always swear that this class added 200 points to my verbal SAT scores. This was a class that was available to advanced students in an inner-city middle school. It made up for a lot of other shortcomings in the system I was in. I still explain words to my children by taking them apart here is the root and pre-fix meanings and here is what it means. My daughter’s 6th grade science class has a weekly quiz on 10 science roots again enabling the knowledge of a lot more words. I can already see her vocabulary expanding.

    Comment by DC Parent — December 27, 2012 @ 10:30 am

  30. @DC This is, I assume, one of the reasons that Latin remains on the curriculum of some schools. I’d be interested to see some data on gains in vocabulary and the ability to infer word meanings in context among those who have studied Latin and those who have not. I’d also be interested in how widely Latin is offered. In NYC, I don’t know of a single public school that offers Latin. I do not know of a single private school that does not.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — December 27, 2012 @ 10:35 am

  31. [...] “Words are the new black,” writes Robert Pondiscio on Core Knowledge Blog. “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.” [...]

    Pingback by Vocabulary is destiny — Joanne Jacobs — December 27, 2012 @ 12:54 pm

  32. Learning foreign languages (including ancient ones) and translating brief texts is a time-honored way to increase vocabulary and more importantly learn to use words with precision.

    Comment by h — December 27, 2012 @ 2:10 pm

  33. Poetry is rhetoric in its more compressed form and is an enjoyable way to increase vocabulary and learn the concept of using words with precision. Poetry and song.

    Comment by h — December 27, 2012 @ 2:13 pm

  34. @Robert (comment 30). Here in Minnesota, I know of several public schools that offer – require – Latin. They’re called charter schools, and all of them are also Core Knowledge schools. Yet another reason why some alleged supporters of Core Knowledge who oppose all charter schools are in no practical sense real friends of Core Knowledge.

    My two kids, 9th and 7th grades, study Latin and do the obligatory grumbling about having to learn a “dead” language. I rely on the authority of teachers I respect that Latin helps in developing literacy and vocabulary skills, but I’ve never read anything addressed to laypeople why this is so.

    Anyone know of any articles/essays that explain the value of Latin, or can any Latin teachers in the CK blog audience explain this value in a practical, meat-and-potatoes way?

    Comment by John Webster — December 27, 2012 @ 8:07 pm

  35. John,

    Sum, es, est, sumus, estis, sunt. Almost fifty years later I can still conjugate Latin verbs in my sleep. My vocabulary transfer from Latin to English also remains, but to what degree might be challenging to measure.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — December 28, 2012 @ 8:05 am

  36. @John The redoubtable Jessica Lahey, a Latin teacher, is up for the challenge of penning something on Latin’s role in developing literacy and vocabulary. Stay tuned.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — December 28, 2012 @ 8:12 am

  37. [...] Robert Pondiscio wrote “How to Get a Big Vocabulary,” I knew it was just a matter of time before I my defenses would weaken, and I would have to start [...]

    Pingback by Miss Lahey’s Epistle to the Romans « The Core Knowledge Blog — December 28, 2012 @ 11:24 am

  38. Yesterday I came across an old Fox trot comic strip that I had saved a few years ago, and it seems relevant to the present discussion. The comic strip consists of eight panels. The first seven panels show Peter, probably in the ninth or tenth grade, sitting in an English class. The teacher, not shown, is talking. The dialog is as follows:

    Teacher: Welcome, everyone. I thought we could spend this first week of school discussing the book you were assigned to read over the summer.

    “The Red Badge Of Courage.” Anyone care to tell me some of its themes?

    Anyone? (no response)

    Okay, let’s back up a bit. Who wants to tell me what it’s about?

    (silence)

    How about the name of the main character? The name of the author? The color of the book jacket? (Peter raises his hand.)

    Yes, Peter?

    Peter: I think it was light blue.

    The last panel shows Peter talking to his mother at home.

    Peter: Well, the good news is I’m currently the top student in my English class?

    Mother: And the bad news?

    When I first saw this comic a few years ago I thought it was good enough to save. Now when I look at it again, it occurs to me that it’s a good example of the importance of reading between the lines, of background knowledge. A person would need only a very limited vocabulary of English to read every sentence with complete understanding, at least on the word or sentence level. But one might do that and completely miss the meaning, and therefore the humor, on a higher level, perhaps the paragraph level.

    This suggests to me that perhaps the concept of “vocabulary of ideas” is important, or the “vocabulary of expectations” or the “vocabulary of cultural norms, or the “vocabulary of . . . . . . “. To get the humor of this comic strip one would have to be familiar with the culture it represents, the subtle foibles of the culture, not just the basic facts.

    Vocabulary of words is important, obviously, but I wonder if that is only one instance of what we might think of as vocabularies.

    Yes, this is pretty much a restatement of what E. D. Hirsch has been telling us for many years. Once again, knowledge is power.

    Comment by Brian Rude — January 3, 2013 @ 11:54 am

  39. I’m afraid that detailed instructions to teach words in “the right sequence” will kill the process of acquisition

    Comment by Polish translator — January 3, 2013 @ 4:54 pm

  40. As a high school English teacher with a belief that reading vocabulary-rich literature (especially the classics), I am sad that the common core standards encourage more non-fiction texts. Vocabulary is strengthened when students read books with challenging words that spark their imaginations through characters that stay with them.

    Comment by Jayne Walters — January 6, 2013 @ 3:29 pm

  41. [...] How to Get a Big Vocabulary “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.” [...]

    Pingback by Bigger Vocabulary = More Opportunities For Kids - Kidz Edge Magazine — January 9, 2013 @ 11:55 pm

  42. This is a great excerpt from the new auto-biography by Justice Sotomayer.

    “She mentions often in the book worrying that she was outmatched intellectually by classmates and colleagues, but confident that she could overcome any deficit by buckling down, working harder, studying longer.

    “I came to accept during my freshman year that many of the gaps in my knowledge and understanding were simply limits of class and cultural background, not lack of aptitude or application as I’d feared,” she writes. “I honestly felt no envy or resentment, only astonishment at how much of a world there was out there and how much of it others already knew. The agenda for self-cultivation that had been set for my classmates by their teachers and parents was something I’d have to develop for myself.”

    After disappointing grades her freshman year at Princeton, Sotomayor bought grammar books and vocabulary texts and practiced each lunch hour at her summer job. She eventually flourished, winning Princeton’s top academic prize and graduating with highest honors, summa cum laude. ”

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/sotomayor-tells-life-story-shaped-by-disease-overcoming-adversity/2013/01/13/17e75fd2-5b3a-11e2-9fa9-5fbdc9530eb9_story.html?tid=ts_carousel

    Comment by DC Parent — January 14, 2013 @ 12:31 pm

  43. [...] assuming you came home from the delivery room having learned your first few dozen words.” — Robert Pondiscio [...]

    Pingback by Illiteracy, Crime and the Culture Gap — 1389 Blog - Counterjihad! — May 28, 2013 @ 2:59 pm

  44. [...] assuming you came home from the delivery room having learned your first few dozen words.” — Robert Pondiscio [...]

    Pingback by Abortion: “I felt I had no choice.” | Jericho777's Blog — May 29, 2013 @ 7:39 am

  45. [...] Knowledge’s Robert Pondiscio posed an intriguing proposition worth [...]

    Pingback by Teacher Unions Come Out in Support of CCSS | CommonCoreRapport — November 25, 2013 @ 3:18 pm

  46. Though I have not read all of the comments, I would like to suggest the part that enjoying reading good books plays in the development of not only academic/non-academic reading skills, but vocabulary development and writing skills. I teach English at a California community college all the way from serious remedial to college level reading and writing. I can honestly say that the students in my remedial classes readily admit they rarely read for pleasure, and if they do, it is rarely books that educators would classify as “good” fiction/non-fiction. While ANY reading can be beneficial, the hard truth is that not all kids are raised with a love of reading and even fewer come to our college campuses prepared for the careful, diligent study-reading that college text require of students. I’m afraid we can’t solve ALL kids’ problems with all the programs, special tests, cutting-edge approaches, and differentiated curriculum in the world. While I advocate much of the above, I would also say that although we have the goal in K-12 to leave no child behind, the sad truth is that some kids just take more time and practice to acquire academic proficiency in many areas, and some may never quite “get it.” But I say “hoorah” for those who continue to work hard to make education accessible and as successful as possible for students.

    Comment by M. J. Plaxton — January 9, 2014 @ 8:48 pm

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