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Thoughts on Vocabulary (with Questions)

posted: 5.20.11 by archived

Scary stories. Last week a colleague of mine reported in passing that few of her students knew the meaning the word “concise,” which particularly struck her because that’s a word often used in writing instruction. She mentioned also that when she asked students about key vocabulary in assigned reading, she found that few students looked up even those words they didn’t know but were necessary to a basic understanding of an article’s claim or an author’s premises. It’s not a foreign idea to me—that many students have more limited vocabularies than I would have hoped–, but I had not thought deeply enough about how this impacts what they understand of their reading and, more importantly, what I should do as an instructor to address this.

How can my students read a college-level textbook if they don’t know words like “concise”?

Reading and writing. Beyond their self-disclosures about how little some of them read, I can see it in my students’ writing, some of whose misspellings make clear they have not seen the word in print. (With our trusted colleagues we share our private collections of such mistakes, with a tinge of shame ourselves—the one that sticks with me is a student’s “self of steam” that took me a minute to recognize as “self esteem.”)

Because it’s possible to write effectively with simple words, in a writing class we may not emphasize or even acknowledge the importance of students’ developing their vocabularies. For me, this is in part because it’s hard to respond to students who try to use vocabulary they haven’t quite mastered, to address the seemingly contradictory aims of a mature style and a natural voice.

What shall we read? Reading (as much as writing) needs to be taught across the curriculum, but do those of us in English departments bear a deeper responsibility to address explicitly how to read?

I was excited this week to stumble on Conor Friedersdorf’s “Nearly 100 Fantastic Pieces of Journalism” (usefully separated into sections such as Crime and Punishment; Sports and Leisure; Birth, Death, and the Afterlife; Food). Most semesters I require my students to write a standard summary-response paper (livened up with UMass’s image of “text-wrestling”). I didn’t do so this semester, but wonder at both the value and difficulty for my students of such an assignment.

Another article I stumbled on recently was Kelefa Sanneh’s “The Reality Principle: The rise and rise of a television genre” in the May  issue of the New Yorker. It seemed at first a potential essay for my classes (aligning with the notion that people can understand complex material more easily if they have background knowledge of the topic). But in the first half-dozen paragraphs, without trying too hard, I found the following: artifice, trepidation, misnomer, antecedent, precocity, cohabitational, unpretentious, acerbic, venerable. Can I ask students to read such potentially challenging material? Should I?

Technological options. My impulse up to this point has been to suggest that students print out articles, buying into the claim that readers more deeply read on paper rather than screen (cf. Nicholas Carr’s widely discussed Atlantic article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”) and that annotation, for my students, is more easily accomplished on paper rather than pdf. But in terms of vocabulary acquisition, perhaps e-readers with their built-in dictionaries would have a decided advantage. Another useful tool might be a web-annotation tool such as George Williams describes in his ProfHacker post “Scrible: A New Tool for Web Annotation”; in addition to other sorts of annotations (of main idea, skeleton of argument, questions, and connections), I might ask students to highlight the words they could not define.

Some questions. To what extent should an increased vocabulary be part of the course objectives of a composition class? What prods can we apply to encourage our students to crack open a dictionary (in whatever form)? Do we need to resort to the vocab quizzes I remember from, most recently, my freshman year in high school? Any other suggestions? Please weigh in with your own observations, ideas, strategies.

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Categories: Community College issues, Holly Pappas
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