Words’ Worth

I didn’t go to kindergarten. It wasn’t mandatory then. I had a stay-at-home mom and both of my parents read to me. My dad used to read bible stories to me before I fell asleep. I don’t remember deliberately learning the meanings of words. I suppose I asked what a word meant if I didn’t know. Once I started school, I practiced reading with a speed reader machine. I was good at it. Phonics was a daily occurrence as was the pledge of allegiance and the routine fingernail check. We recited the long and short vowel sounds: a, aah, e, eh, i, ih, o, aw, u, uh. We studied word families. I learned all of the ate family words, for example, and then moved on to the ite family. As I moved up in grades, I began to learn root words and their meanings via spelling lists. I was expected to know how to spell the words as well as define them and use them in sentences.

My learning shifted from memorizing words out of context to knowing and using terms (the word for the words even changed) in specific subject areas. Science, math, and social studies were loaded with their own language. English, too, had grammar, sentence, literature, and literary terms. And of course, the better reader I became, the more words I learned from books.

I’ve spent much of my teaching career helping kids better their vocabularies. I’ve also spent a fair amount of time researching methods meant to make that an easier job than it usually is. I discovered there is no single way to teach vocabulary effectively. The whole language movement swept in early in my career, shoving phonics to the background and in some instances, out of the classroom all together. It became not only acceptable, but kids were encouraged to invent their own spelling of a word. The important part was they felt free to write, to get their thoughts down on paper; the fact that few could understand what they were trying to communicate was insignificant. Spelling and vocabulary lists disappeared. Students created their own lists of words as they needed them. My students had words on index cards connected by a ring with them as they wrote. (This method from Sylvia Ashton Warner, I learned when getting my masters.) They learned Greek and Latin word parts, too, because I remembered how much knowing those roots and affixes helped me in the upper grades. We spent time figuring out words from context. Mine was a multi-pronged approach. Some might say scattershot. Kids increased their vocabularies and that was what mattered most.

I am strolling you down my memory lane because I am curious as to how you learned your vocabulary. Were you a whole language kid or were you a vocabulary list kid?

I love crossword puzzles and have done them as long as I can remember. I owe a lot of my vocabulary knowledge to them. I’ve always been a writer, seems like, so words are my jam. I’m a poet, too, which means spending hours with a thesaurus in search of the perfect word. Being a life-long (at least so far) learner means new words present themselves frequently. Studying birds and mammals of Arkansas or the night sky has garnered me at least five new words (crepuscular, dimorphism, bolide, extirpated, melanism). I read a ton and that pastime is still a great source of new vocabulary as well. I think it is important to have the right word for whatever thought I want to express. (Another article regarding this is forthcoming.) How about you? What is your thinking on the importance of vocabulary? Are you still picking up new words? If so, how are you going about gaining them? I’d love to hear from you.

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