Vocab Gab (or How Kids Learn Cool, New Words)

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I often get my blog inspiration from all of the education news and teacher sharing that comes pouring into my computer every day. It surprises no one who knows me that reading is my breathing in and writing my breathing out. I can’t imagine it any other way. It’s all like fresh air to me.

This week’s inspiration came from an article I read about the new way of teaching vocabulary—by teaching and making students memorize Latin and Greek root words and affixes. Wait! New? I remember that from the dark ages when I went to school back in Raytown, Missouri. That then got me thinking about vocabulary instruction in general, and as always, book reading.

Almost every professional article I read includes one or more words that remind me of a term that I was supposed to have learned in a high school English class. I have actually encountered many of those terms in my reading in the intervening 50 years. My response is usually. “OH! I recognize that term, wait…it’s something like…” while I am carefully scanning, often successfully, the sentences in which they occur for clues about their meanings.

By the way, this week’s encounter in my reading was the word indefatigable. Surely you remember that one! Prefixes: IN (not) and DE (negation) then the root FATIG (like fatigue) and a suffix, ABLE (tending to) for a meaning of untiring, tenacious, never giving up. Okay, I looked it up! I had to. All that prefix/suffix stuff didn’t do me much good. And yes, I looked it up online, which is sooo much easier than dragging out the old Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.

All this to say, that evidently educators are still trying to teach rich and powerful vocabulary in what I consider the least rich and almost completely disempowering ways…like the way I was taught.

The research of which I am aware (and which also rings totally true to my life experience) indicates that the very best, most memorable and most rewarding personal vocabulary development comes not from rote learning of words (and word parts) selected by someone else, but from the joyful reading of really good books with powerful language in them. It is during that reading where knowing a word’s meaning becomes personally important. It is during that personally selected book reading that reflection upon the author’s craft in making word choices that totally light us up, or drives home a point or makes our hearts go pitty-pat that learning words takes on a significance well beyond getting 100 percent on a test. And that significance still works for me now, 50 years after I received my last A in English.

Strong vocabulary is showcased where the power of word choices an author makes is totally on display as absolutely great words to use in the book currently in hand. The author chose each word as she was writing, and shaping her message for her selected audience’s personally important purpose in reading in the first place.

I’m not naïve enough to believe we’ll ever shake the 20-word vocabulary memorization list. However, I am totally prepared to defend …indefatigably even…a dedication first to teach kids to pick really great books to read, that perfectly reflect their personal tastes and interests and then to offer them abundant time to read them.

THAT will result in vocabulary development that prepares kids to fully understand the unfolding world they will encounter and to fully express themselves in it.