Vocabulary is destiny

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.”

“Students don’t know the words they need to flourish as learners, earners or citizens,” writes Core Knowledge founder E.D. Hirsch in a   Wall Street Journal op-ed. Content provides the context that drives vocabulary growth, writes 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.”

Children don’t build vocabulary by memorizing word lists, writes Pondiscio. They need to be “exposed to increasingly complex words in context.” It takes time.

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.

A student’s vocabulary size in grade 12 correlates strongly with “the likelihood that she will graduate from college, and her future level of income,”  Hirsch writes in an upcoming City Journal article. Vocabulary is destiny.

Common Core State Standards cannot mandate but strongly recommend “a coherent, content-rich curriculum, writes Pondiscio. Content knowledge gives students a context for what they read, which enables them to learn new vocabulary.

Here’s a letter from a former inner-city high school teacher, who says his students “could not read anything, because nearly every sentence had at least one word they had never seen before.” And they didn’t have the background knowledge to figure out what unfamiliar words meant.


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  1. Really? Kids need to know lots of words in order to read? With a few tweaks, this could be a parody from The Onion. [Facepalm].

    • Richard Aubrey says:

      Mike S.
      This isn’t new. It isn’t news. It’s a signal that it’s okay to talk about it now.

      • Richard Aubrey says:

        After some thought…. The powers that be have signaled it’s okay to talk about this now because they have concluded it is satisfactorily too late to do anything about it.

  2. greeneyeshade says:

    Reminds me of an observation of Judith (Miss Manners) Martin’s. I don’t know or much care, though I think I can guess, how she votes, but she put it in a nutshell: “Facts are a necessary framework for supporting thought.”

  3. You can and should expose students to a lot of words, but how much sticks will depend on how smart they are. Smarter kids are more likely to retain an understanding of the difference between similar words, such as “courteous” and “obsequious”.

    The batteries of tests used to compute an IQ include a vocabulary test. Wordsum is a vocabulary test that also serves as a simple IQ test. You cannot equalize the vocabularies of low-IQ and high-IQ people.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      hmmm. There are different componets to iq test and it’s quite possible to score high on one or more section and low(er) on others.

      My son with asperger’s blows the top off the vocab section but scores much lower on processing speed which lowers his overall results.

      Vocab is just one component of intelligence.

      • Isn’t it true that the presence of a disability alters the results of most/any testing, specific to the nature of the disability? I think Bostonian was speaking to the non-disabled population, for which I think his premise is accurate.

      • Stacy in NJ says:

        IQ tests are used in part to diagnose disabilities. A scatter result like my son’s is supposed to be an indicator of disability. But, two recent studies illustrated how unreliable some tests are particularly for those on the spectrum. Typically, the Wechsler is used but when the Raven Matrices was used instead there was a significant variation in results – and that’s not supposed to happen. The Wechsler is a highly verbal test where as the Raven is pattern recognition. Folks on the specturm who score low on the Wechsler will sometimes score much higher on the Raven and vice versa.

        All this to say, basically IQ tests are crap for those who are non-neuro typical. With one in 82 children being diagnosed with Autism, who is and isn’t “neuro-typical”?

        Getting a firm grasp on who is and isn’t low or high IQ maybe much more difficult than previously thought, and vocab development is one aspect of that complexity – for both neuro and non-neuro typical.

    • Crewsliner says:

      Kids get “smart” through multiple exposures. Every child can learn.

  4. IIRC, the ASVAB has a math and a verbal component, but the verbal score is doubled, before being added to the math score, to get the final score, because the verbal is a better predictor of IQ and thus, ability to acquire new knowledge and skills.

  5. lightly seasoned says:

    I’d say word lists DO increase comprehension, as long as they are used in conjunction with challenging reading. My students are always pointing out vocab words in our literary texts. And vocab needs to be taught with context — not just memorizing definitions. Typical learners need about five exposures to add a word to their working vocabulary. That’s pretty easy to do by incorporating word lists into other things, like grammar and composition instruction, ie., write two metaphors using at least one vocab word in each; write a compound sentence with a vocab word in each independent clause, etc. These work as good bellringers/warm-ups/tickets out the door.

  6. Crewsliner says:

    Thank you for your blog. While teaching children vocabulary words isn’t new, the emphasis on explicit teaching, formative feedback, multiple exposures to words, application, and students taking part in their own assessment is new to many folks. You are correct. I am an ESL teacher and it does take lots of time to embed vocabulary in learning contexts and then more time for children to “own” the knowledge. The smart-aleck comments would be best left out, wouldn’t you agree?

    • lightly seasoned says:

      Probably. Unless they are making them with a vocab word … those are always allowed in my classroom :).