An important piece in the New York Times the other day--"Before a Test, a Poverty of Words" (Article). The piece states what is actually kind of obvious, especially to those of us who have spent so many years in the classroom: an impoverished vocabulary can lead directly to an impoverished life.
One line jumped out at me: "There is strong evidence that increasing the general knowledge and vocabulary of a child before age 6 is the single highest correlate with later success. Schools have an enormously hard time pushing through the deficiencies with which many children arrive."
Schools, in other words, have a hard time compensating for what's happened in those pre-school years. And, I would say, what happens later on, too ...
When I was in my junior high years, my parents used to give me a hard time about my vocabulary. I had pretty much stopped reading books then, and my vocabulary--though rich in words about baseball and comic books and cowboy movies and commercials on radio and TV--was not exactly a rich dessert. More like a sugar cookie.
They used to encourage me to do the little vocab quiz in Reader's Digest (I never did too well); they even bought me a copy of that once-popular book 30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary. I gave it a couple of days. Felt dumb. Quit. (That was my MO in adolescence.)
I was fortunate, though. My parents were both highly educated; our house was full of books; my older brother (by three years) was a bibliophage and after eating his books he would spray at me the Big Words he'd learned, usually the ones that were useful for insulting a sibling--was it from Richard that I learned cloacal? So ... even though I was not doing much to expand my vocabulary, I lived in a word-rich environment. Some of it sank in. And stuck.
In public school I had very few teachers who did anything directly about vocabulary growth. We had spelling tests all the time--but not many vocabulary tests. I remember only one teacher--the wonderful Augustus H. Brunelle, whom I had for two years in high school English--who devoted much attention to it at all. We were, for the most part, on our own.
Once I got to college, things changed. Again--there was no real overt instruction, but it was hard (impossible?) to be a part of classes and discussions if I employed only my words from baseball and cowboy shows. There were some professors, especially, who used words I didn't know but wanted to. (Prof. Abe Ravitz, of whom I've written many times, was one of them.) I found myself going back to my room after classes (in those dark, pre-Dictionary.com days) and looking up unfamiliar words I'd heard in class and had written in my notebook. (As I've written before, this is how I learned those wonderful words lycanthropy and noetic and others.)
And by the time I entered grad school in the summer of 1968, I was a Word Fanatic, filling notebooks with words I didn't know--and wanted to know. I read the essays and books of William F. Buckley, whose politics I pretty much abhorred, mostly to learn new words. (What a vocabulary he had.) From him came anfractuous and maieutic and numerous other sometimes-useful words. Anytime I came across in my reading a word I didn't know I wrote it down; looked it up. Now, of course, it's much easier. On my iPhone I have a half-dozen dictionary apps that allow me to learn immediately.
And my friends on FB know (because of my many annoying posts) that I'm on a number of daily computer word-of-the-day sites--and I have word-of-the-day calendars around the house.
Some of this was if not inspired at least animated by the example of Jack London, a boy who grew up in a very modest home, a boy who had very limited schooling but who, once bitten by the Word Bug, became a ferocious learner of words--writing them on slips of paper and sticking them around his room, carrying them in his pockets. Eating words like snacks. (Read his autobiographical novel Martin Eden for a sample of what I'm talking about.)
Once I became a teacher, I slowly moved into vocabulary work. (Like most teachers, I taught, at first, as I had been taught--which meant: not much vocab work.) But the more I learned about it, the more research I read (at the time, the research was saying, re: vocabulary teaching, no method is superior; some method is better than none), the more I began to make it a regular feature of my class. A list for the year. Weekly quizzes. Constant review. Attention to it while we were reading. My last years at Harmon Middle School, I used to tape each new word of the day on my wall--and leave it there. By year's end my chalkboard was surrounded by nearly two hundred words. (It took a while to get rid of it all at year's end!)
My students (juniors) at Western Reserve Academy were somewhat more vocab-motivated because of the SAT. Many of them worked through various vocabulary-building programs on their own to try to fill their storehouse of words before that test. (Wonder how much of it remained, afterwards?) I taught one young woman from China who would send me emails nearly every day about specific words--asking me how they're used, etc. It annoyed me at first; then, I realized, this is what all students should be doing!
As the Times article points out, we do live in a somewhat word-impoverished culture now. In a way, we are awash in words (they flow at us in torrents from the web, text messages, and from myriads of other media outlets). But the words that wash over us are the same words, over and over and over. The stream is rapid, but shallow.
I used to have students who would complain about vocabulary work: Why do I have to learn these words? I'll never use them! That sort of thing.
And my somewhat flippant reply--Well, if you don't ever learn them, it's certain you'll never use them.
I think now of Akron artist John Sokol, who has done many portraits of writers using their own words. The image here shows the face of the young Henry Wadsworth Longfellow constructed from the words of his poem "Psalm of Life" (Link). One implication of Sokol's technique: We are our words. They compose us. They define us.
Of course, it's obvious that if you keep your vocabulary low, you are condemning yourself to life's wading pool. Denying yourself access to the streams, rivers, ponds, lakes, and depthless oceans of literature and human discourse. This, to me, is a sad way to live--only the ankles wet with words.