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Thursday, 15 September 2011

What's in a Word?

I have always been fascinated by words. Where they come from, how they evolve, how they break down into smaller bits (roots, suffixes, prefixes, parts of a compound word etc.), and most importantly all the baggage they carry. Each word conjures up a host of associations, flavours, and moods. The very idea of connotation fascinates me. How is it that a word, one little word, can say so much? And how is it that we can all understand all that baggage, all the history, all the stories that each word tells?
Why are words so important? How do they define and delineate the parameters of thought? Why are our thoughts so constrained by a lack of vocabulary but so liberated by a rich and varied vocabulary? Although a number of linguists have supposedly proven that thought is possible without language, I’m not totally and fully convinced. I’ve read Steven Pinker’s books on this particular topic, and I’ve heard his view reiterated by a number of other linguists, but I’m still fairly certain that most thought, if not all, is possible only when we have the words to think with. And definitely, having the right words helps to clarify, organize, articulate, and understand thoughts in meaningful ways.  The greater our vocabularies, the more sophisticated and complex our thoughts can be.
Last year, my students did an exercise where they tried to come up with alternatives for highly clich├ęd words like “sad” and “nice” and “mean” and “happy.” What we found, as a class, was that our alternatives were not just fresher, they were always more nuanced. Sad is a generic word, but dismayed, on the other hand, describes not just sadness, but a certain type and degree of sadness. Similarly, melancholic, miserable, and depressed all convey very specific types and degrees of sadness. The broader the range of vocabulary, the more accurately and effectively we can think and the more clearly we can articulate a thought. Quite phenomenal, if you ask me.
Given the enormous role that words play in our ability not only to comprehend what we read  but also to think critically and deeply about the world around us, I think that helping students expand their own vocabularies is a critical part of teaching. A staggering statistic: the average school child acquires between 2500 and 3000 new words each year. Most of these words, obviously, are learned incidentally. This year, I’m teaching a seventh grade course, a ninth grade course, and a tenth grade course. It is amazing to me how many words my seventh graders do NOT know: words like portray, anecdote, and peril. Most of my ninth graders know these words. I’m always impressed by the size of my high school students’ vocabularies. The fact that in two years, my seventh graders too will have these sophisticated high school vocabularies is incredible, to say the least.
What are the best ways to teach vocabulary? I think that using a sophisticated vocabulary is possibly the most natural and effective way to expose students to new words. Instead of dumbing down my vocabulary when I speak with teenagers (or even my own, much younger, children), I very intentionally use complex and nuanced words. If students ask me what the words mean, I will discuss the words. If not, I’ll just use the same word often, with the hope and expectation that my students will learn the word incidentally, just from hearing it used in context on multiple occasions. Additionally, I think that direct instruction is probably important. However, I find it hard to make the time to teach vocabulary in an explicit way, and I also find that these teaching sessions are not as productive as the more natural method of merely using more complex words. Students may be able to define a word that has been explicitly taught, but they often have trouble understanding it well enough to use it effectively. They don’t get the word; they don’t get all the connotations, all the baggage that the word carries, until they hear or read the word used in context often.
As a teacher, however, I can only do so much. Vocabulary acquisition has to start early, and it has to start in the home. The words that a child encounters from infancy onwards will determine not just how well the child does on reading tests down the road but also the child’s ability to think and communicate. If there’s anything a parent can do for a child, it is to expose the child to the richest array of words possible.

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