How to Improve Your Vocabulary

Some of my writing students want to improve their vocabulary this semester. That’s admirable, but they probably won’t like my suggestions:

1) Read more.

2) Not just Junie B. Jones and Archie comics (for Fifteen). Read progressively more challenging material. Or at least rotate in challenging stuff between the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and Harry Potter (for Eighteen).

3) When reading challenging material, take time to look up some of the words you don’t know. (A favorite i-Pad e-book feature, touch the word, touch the definition tab, five-ten seconds, genius. The plus side of an admitted trade-off).

4) Integrate newly learned words into your conversations and writing even if you don’t use them perfectly initially. I called Fifteen a sycophant the other day. She asked what that meant. I told her it was the first word on the aced vocab quiz adorning the frig. That brought a smile. Use em’ or lose em’.

5) The power of osmosis can’t be exaggerated. This is the “try to play tennis with people better than you” concept. Hang with people whose vocabularies are further along than yours. In addition to Modern Family, talk about ideas, what you’re reading, North African and Middle Eastern political unrest, and the Wisconsin state legislature. You become the company you keep.

The problem with my suggestions is most young people prefer multimedia to reading, spending hundreds of hours Facebooking and watching legions of movies for every substantive book they read. Apparently blog posts are even too long. Fifteen rarely chooses to read in her free time, gravitating to Facebook and SuperNanny instead. Interestingly though, whenever she’s required to read quality literature in her English class, she always enjoys it.

In the end, there are no shortcuts. Absent immersing oneself in vocab-rich reading material, dictionary work, time spent in literate small groups, and more vocab-rich reading, don’t expect to light the vocabulary world on fire.

Adolescent Literacy

Felt nostalgic for Europe I guess and took the train to PDX for a workshop on adolescent literacy. I WANT to be a train person, but Amtrak is making it hard. It’s bad enough the train takes longer than driving. My Squeeze and I planned on eating an early dinner in the big city and then returning on the 6:15p. Workshop ended an hour early and so we decided to take the 4:20p and eat at home. Headed to the iMax at 3:40p. At the train station we learned the 4:20p was delayed about an hour.

Long story short, it never arrived, something about a tree on the track. Instead of a romantic dinner, we took a walk and then sat in front of the station reading in the setting sun eating pistachios. The 6:15p originates in PDX so it would have to leave on time. . . right? Longer story shorter, we walked off the train at 7:40p, exactly four hours after leaving the hotel for home. Something about a broken brake line they couldn’t fix. The man sitting in front of us asked if we wanted a lift home, he was bailing on the train, taking the iMax to his car in Clakamass. He had a morning business meeting in Seattle. What a life, or at least, nightsaver.

But I digress.

Stanford research prof was the main presenter. Excellent researcher I’m sure, but how can I put this nicely, his presentation skills were not as well developed. Here’s what Dr. Stanford Expert and his co-presenter, a much better teacher from The U of Utah, recommended.

1. Strengthen adolescent reading fluency, vocab, and comprehension through scientifically researched (read quasi-experimental and other quantitative studies) teaching strategies that have been proven to be effective including explicit vocabulary instruction and classroom discussion of texts.

2. Explicit instruction involves three steps: I do it (modeling). We do it (guided practice). You do it (independent practice). If teaching a complex literacy skill like summarizing, the three steps may take an entire week. Teachers inevitably rush the steps.

3. There are three elements to classroom discussion of texts: 1) efferent (the who, what, where, and why of what was read. . . what did the writer say); 2) analysis and interpretation; and 3) evaluation. . . how did you feel about it, how convincing was the argument or engaging/illuminating the narrative. Research suggests teachers slight part one which low achieving students benefit the most from. Dr. SE made it clear he had “absolutely no interest” in evaluation/students’ opinions.

It was alternatingly interesting and exasperating. Throughout the day there was no discussion of the purposes of literacy; there wasn’t a single reference to digital, electronic, or multimedia texts; nor was there a single reference to the societal curriculum. Nevermind that adolescents are in school 22-23% of the time and outside it 77-78%.

Here’s an alternative, admittedly less scientific, more sociological perspective.

Immerse children and young adults in rich literary environments for long periods of time. Surround them by interesting reading material. Unplug more and read in front of them. Talk about what you’re reading. Demonstrate a love of reading in your daily life. Repeat year after year.

Here’s a related math literacy, or “numeracy” example. One Sunday morning, when seventeen was two or three, she crawled into bed and snuggled in between mom and dad. Dad started counting. “One.” She squeaked, “two.” And thus began Sunday morning math. Overtime, we counted by twos, threes, fours, whatever we felt like. We never called it multiplication. My hunch that my daughter’s success in math is in part explained by those Sunday mornings would not impress Dr. SE one bit.

I was impressed with how candidate Obama talked eloquently about parents being their childrens’ first and most important teachers. I wonder why he’s abandoned the Bully Pulpit.

The teachers and school leaders in the workshop politely and passively accepted the “literacy and numeracy as a teacher-centered science” way of thinking as if there are no alternatives. Few probably realized with that paradigm comes a narrow emphasis on technical skills, test scores, and national economic competitiveness.

Research and what happens in school matters, but magic can happen when young people are immersed in rich literary environments where word and number play are daily activities.