On word geekery (& vocab acquisition)

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Can we make all kids into word geeks? And if can, should we? I'm a card-carrying word geek. Or I would be if we had cards for such things — as it is, the ten or so vocabulary books on my shelf probably suffice.

I'm the sort of person who exults to learn obscure terms (your acnestis, for example, is the part of your back that, when it itches, you can't reach!) and oddball word origins (to disembowel and eviscerate literally mean the same thing — bowels and viscera are both words for 'intestines', and dis- and e- both mean 'out'!).

Never trust a geek. We'll swear up and down that our particular corner of geekdom-ery is crucial — pivotal! — for every man, woman, and child. So you hear music geeks declaring that music is the core of an education, engineering geeks declaring that, no, it's engineering, and so on. Somewhere a My Little Pony geek is probably saying that American kids need to close the Twilight Sparkle gap with the Koreans.

And let me emphasize: Never trust a geek.

But: vocabulary knowledge is reading skill.

There's a hard-to-squelch belief that kids don't need to learn vocabulary — that they can just learn to use "contextual clues." The trouble with this is that it oftentimes doesn't work. Take the following sentence, from yesterday's New York Times:

In New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, who last week called for obligatorisk karantæne for health care workers returning from West Africa, sounded a more forsonende note, joining Mayor Bill de Blasio to announce financial incitamenter to encourage health professionals to go to West Africa to treat Ebola patients.

Above, I've taken a real world sentence, and translated into Danish the words that many of my high school students wouldn't know. (Thanks, Google translate!)

Can you figure out what obligatorisk, karantæne, forsonende, and incitamenter mean?

Very possibly you might be able to: my students, however, would not. (To figure it out, you might draw on your knowledge of the world — specifically, your knowledge of "the sorts of things governors are demanding of health care workers when they return from areas rife in scary, infectious diseases." Many high school students lack this knowledge. That's why they're reading this article, actually: to gain it.)

Here, by the way, is the sentence in all its Technicolor glory:

In New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, who last week called for mandatory quarantines for health care workers returning from West Africa, sounded a more conciliatory note, joining Mayor Bill de Blasio to announce financial incentives to encourage health professionals to go to West Africa to treat Ebola patients.

If the kids don't know enough words, they won't be able to understand the text. 

Foreign language learners, of course, know this. Polyglot Anthony Lauder asks what percentage of a text's words do you need to comprehend it, and cites the following:

  • 98% pleasant, free reading
  • 95% comprehensible
  • 90% serious study
  • 85% heroes only
  • 80% gibberish

(This is from his wonderful speech PolyNot. The actual quote is about 5 minutes in.)

English professor extraordinaire E.D. Hirsch suggests there's a troubling Matthew Effect at play here: a young student who knows most of the words in a text will understand the text better, and that understanding will help her make sense of the few words she doesn't know. She'll then be able to take on books with more unfamiliar vocabulary, and so on, and so on, edging upwards and forwards in linguistic complexity.

A student who doesn't start by knowing most of the words, won't. He'll be stuck.

The (verbally) rich get richer, and the (verbally) poor get poorer.

Ack.

So it will benefit our students a great deal to make sure that they start with understanding a great deal of vocabulary. Much of that, of course, is in the parents court. But how can our school help students acquire vocabulary? How can we make it relatively painless — and even enjoyable?

This I'll take up in Monday's post!

Brandon Hendrickson

Seattle, WA