January 28, 2021

Who stole all the words?

Help! Stop that thief! Fifteen thousand words have disappeared.

Did you know there are 490,000 words in the English language? Plus another 300,000 technical words? Did you know Shakespeare had a working vocabulary of approximately 33,000 words? Did you know the average American student in 1945 had a writing vocabulary of 25,000 words? And did you know that today student vocabulary is down 10,000 words?

When I read this information (Ralph Fletcher, “What a Writer Needs,” 1993), I was appalled and of course wondered what happened to the other 15,000 words. Where did they go? How did these words disappear over the past half a century? According to Daniel Webster, my unabridged dictionary still has hundreds of thousands of words, so I suppose these missing words aren’t lost (or stolen), but simply are no longer used. Why?

December, seven years ago, I handed out copies of an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” published by Scholastic Book Club, to my class of fifth graders. Most students already knew the story from picture storybooks and Disney’s movie in which Scrooge McDuck plays the role of Scrooge. Together we read the beginning of Stave One frequently stopping for hard to pronounce and unfamiliar words, but when student faces languished like a funeral dirge I knew this time Scrooge would never make it to his nephew’s Christmas dinner.

I was at a loss for how to help these students read this classic without knowing the meaning of some of the words. So I took this learning opportunity to talk about Dickens. I acknowledged that the purpose of writing is to communicate ideas and the purpose of reading is to interpret the meaning of these written words. I explained that Dickens’ audience understood what he wrote because it was written in the language spoken in that time and that I offered this book because Dickens’ talent for writing characters made such wonderful stories. (“A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” — Mark Twain.)

Six years later, also in December, I handed out copies of O. Henry’s “Gift of the Magi” to eighth graders. Again I experienced readers tripping over the vocabulary in the story even though this story was written about 60 years after Dickens. However, this time we made it completely through this short story. We discussed the plot, characters, theme and some of the students (mostly the girls) admitted to enjoying it, but they didn’t like the way it was written because the words were hard and unfamiliar.

Ralph Fletcher describes three types of vocabulary: reading, writing and speaking. Our reading vocabulary is made of those words we recognize and comprehend when we read. Most people know the meaning of a number of words that they cannot pronounce, but they have acquired meaning while reading. I believe using context clues is a reliable reading skill, and concurrently students need to be introduced to new words out of context and be encouraged to practice these words in both their spoken and written language. Our writing vocabulary is made up of the words we frequently use in our writing, and our speaking vocabulary are the words we commonly use in conversation.

Personally, I learn new words in a variety of ways. When I come across a new word in my reading and I want to acquire it, I need to understand its meaning, so I get out my Webster’s and I look it up. Then I might experiment with it in my spoken language or use it in my writing. I have to keep using it over and over until I feel that I own it. There are also times when I’m engaged in conversation with a friend that I hear an unfamiliar word. Here again, if I’m interested I’ll investigate its meaning, and then transfer it to my reading and writing vocabulary. Consequently, when I’m writing I may borrow a new word from the thesaurus and if it works, I’ll transition it into my reading and speaking vocabulary, or discourse.

So, how do we increase student vocabulary? Students can learn new vocabulary from reading, listening to reading and talking. Today students need more opportunity to read and write, participate in meaningful family conversation, and engage in discourse within the classroom. We learned to talk by hearing the word said to us. Then we played with its sound and used it in attempting to communicate. Sometimes we were successful; other times we were not, but either way, learning took place. Once successful we later transferred the word from out speaking vocabulary to our reading and writing.

Although at the time I felt I had failed my students by offering Dickens to fifth graders and O. Henry to eighth graders, upon reflection maybe learning took place. If students only learned one word, it may have been one more word among the missing. I don’t know about you, but I hate to lose anything. How long do you suppose it might take to find those 15,000 missing words?

Grace Hoffman is a teacher at SeDoMoCha Middle School in Dover-Foxcroft.

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