‘Consensus’ Apparently Is Not in Their Vocabulary

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English teacher Corinne Oliverio takes vocabulary seriously. Her students at James Madison High School in suburban Vienna, Va., get a workbook containing 300 words and exercises to complete sentences and hunt for synonyms.

Teacher Peter Brodie, of Menlo School, near San Francisco, takes vocabulary just as seriously but has no regard for workbooks and word lists. He urges students to mark words they encounter in daily discourse and to play with language.

“Who cares about someone else’s list of words?” Brodie said. Besides, the sentence that a student might write could be, “My sister is steatopygian; yet she is a wannabe ecdysiast.” (Look it up!)


Oliverio and Brodie represent different philosophies as an interest in teaching vocabulary is blooming. Sales of vocabulary workbooks are up. For example, sales of Sadlier-Oxford’s vocabulary workbooks, which Madison High uses, have increased 15% in each of the last two years, according to William Sadlier Dinger, president of William H. Sadlier Inc. has links to more than 2,000 dictionaries in more than 260 languages, and use of the dictionaries is increasing by about 15% per month, said Peter Beard, chief linguistics officer of the dot-com and a professor emeritus at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. There are thousands of new subscribers monthly to various “word of the day” services, which send words with definitions and usage tips, irking those who say that teaching words in isolation is exactly what not to do.

The interest in vocabulary is unsurprising, given the current emphasis on basics in American education and the heightened importance of standardized tests that rely heavily on such skills. What’s more, changing U.S. demographics make the teaching of vocabulary more important than ever, experts say.

“The increase in the number of students who come to school with a first language that is not English makes it critical for teachers to deal with this important aspect of learning,” said Camille Blachowicz, director of the reading program at National-Louis University in Chicago and co-author of “Teaching Vocabulary in All Classrooms.”

“Vocabulary knowledge remains the single best predictor of success in all school subject areas,” she said.

Experts say the key to teaching vocabulary is creating an environment rich in words, at school and home, where definitions of words are discussed in the context of their use. Teachers should teach common Greek and Latin roots of words and let students decipher the meaning of words, because dictionary definitions are often sparse and unhelpful, experts say.

There are few guidelines, they say: Sometimes, words should be taught before a lesson--”barter” in a history course, for instance. Other times, students should discover a word themselves. Sometimes students should stop reading to look up a word; other times, they can skip it.


Some techniques work better than others. One is the thematic teaching of words--learning about items in a house at the same time, for example--rather than studying unconnected words in the same lesson, educators say.

Experts agree on what is most important: books. Word discussions, games, books on words and other approaches are also useful, they say.

“The best way to know vocabulary is to read a lot,” said Lucy Calkins, founding director of the Reading and Writing Project at Teachers College at Columbia University in New York. “The problem with all those workbooks is that they take time away from reading.”

But Linda Lubetkin, assistant principal at Madison, said, “We think teaching word usage is very, very important, because children are not reading as much as we would like them to outside of school.”

Until the first grade, most children learn words from speech, said Isabel Beck, professor of education and senior scientist at the University of Pittsburgh. Later, people learn words mainly through reading, because most of us tend to use common words in speech.

“If you don’t read widely, that’s a problem,” she said.

Research shows overwhelming deficiencies in word knowledge among children from lower-income households.


But, Beck said, “the schools haven’t, in my opinion, done a lot to systematically and interestingly and wisely focus on vocabulary, so that we don’t know if we couldn’t ameliorate some of these differences.”

Oliverio said she’s had success with the workbooks.

“There is something to be said for just learning words and just going over them and over them and using them.”

Indeed, few people retain a word the first time they see it, and researchers agree that repeated exposure is important. But the context of that exposure matters.

“Unless it is part of writing about something, they are not going to retain that vocabulary, because it is not meaningfully connected to any body of knowledge,” said Jill Kerper Mora, associate professor of teacher education at Cal State San Diego State.

Research by Beck and her colleagues has shown that after four exposures to a word in various contexts, students could identify it on a multiple-choice test. But knowledge of such words did not transfer to reading comprehension. Twelve exposures in different contexts did the trick. Having students write 12 similar sentences--”I am desperately looking for my keys,” “I am desperately looking for a job”--doesn’t work.

Brodie contends that half the challenge is teaching students when a word is worth looking up: “The real problem is distinguishing words that are useful and words that aren’t. You can learn a whole bunch of words that are absolutely useless.”