Phi Beta Cons

Weak Student Vocabularies

Apropos of a recent post of mine on this subject, a reader sent me the following:

I was a teacher in the inner city between 1992 and 1996 and immediately realized that those unfortunate kids could not read anything, because nearly every sentence had at least one word they had never seen before. This went for magazine and newspaper articles as well as traditional English stuff. I was not shoving college chemistry texts or The Fall of the House of Usher at them. (Read Poe to a 16 year old today and you will get the glassiest stare imaginable; in Usher, there are 20-25 words in the first paragraph, as well as a round-about way of expression, that would totally defeat all but the brightest teen.)  

I started reading aloud and working on it as we went. I once read an article that had “obsolete” as the second word in the first sentence and I knew in my heart as soon as the word left my tongue that no one in my class of eighteen 16-year-olds knew the word. I was right. Not one. They said they don’t like black and white films, and they didn’t, but I truly believe they didn’t like how much people talked. Watch a Bogart film and see how much of the action is moved by dialogue, sophisticated and adult dialogue, and compare the number and length of words to a contemporary film. Or, my personal favorite annoyance, my church sings all Contemporary Christian Music, what I call Sesame Street music. There are few words of more than one syllable. It utterly baffles me how they can use so few two syllable words (and three, or four! Never!) There must be a special editorial team that culls any words beyond a third grade vocabulary.

How does one reverse this? I spent a long time encouraging them to see the value of having more tools in their linguistic tool box, but when f*** is their primary adjective and adverb, when using “big” words is excoriated, and every “art” form they enjoy diminishes rather than exalts language, what could I do? Read to them, put lists of words they would never see again on the board, encourage expression with some complexity. Not generally fruitful options. 

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.


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