Saturday, September 27, 2014
Words, words, words ...
I've not always been interested in words. When I was in junior high, for example, my parents, alarmed at my vocabulary (or lack thereof), bought me a book--30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary--a book (I just checked) that is still in print, still available on Amazon. I tried it for a day, was bored, quit, turned to my comic books, where my vocabulary was in no need of any additional power.
I should add that my parents' method was always sort of ... indirect. They tended not to give us things and say, Here, read this! Or: Don't get up until you've finished this! That was not their style. They just sort of left things ... lying around. Religious pamphlets. Evelyn Millis Duvall's Facts of Life and Love for Teenagers (no, we never had "The Talk" with my parents--at least I never did). Duvall's masterwork is still available (used copies) on ABE and Amazon.
My grandparents subscribed to Reader's Digest, and I would sometimes check out its long-running feature "Word Power" (I think). I never did too well on those monthly quizzes ... not for a long, long time.
My parents were both highly educated (both would eventually earn a Ph.D.), and my older brother (by three years) had/has an enormous vocabulary, some of which, in youth, he employed on me. Cretin is one word I learned from him.
My only high school teacher (as I remember) who routinely made us learn vocabulary was Mr. Brunelle, whom I had my sophomore and junior years at Hiram High. I did pretty well on the quizzes (didn't study--just remembered how my parents or brother used the words).
My interest in words finally began to grow in college when I quickly learned that if I wanted to read any of my assignments with any comprehension whatsoever, I was going to have to, you know, "look over some words." (This quotation is from my favorite Billy the Kid movie--The Left Handed Gun, 1958, with Paul Newman as the Kid, who utters the phrase I just quoted. He's been learning how to read. Link to trailer for the film)
Throughout grad school (and on into today) I would write down unfamiliar words that I wanted to know--or needed to know--when I encountered them. Today, I subscribe to several online word-a-day services--and I have a word-a-day tear-off calendar in the house (actually, two of them: one upstairs, one down).
When I began teaching English myself (seventh graders, Aurora (Ohio) Middle School, fall 1966), I did not immediately teach vocabulary lists, but as the years went on, I did. The final twenty years or so of my career I constructed the lists from words I'd drawn from the literature the students would be reading, so I knew they would see these words again--and I hoped they would experience a jaw-dropping shock of recognition when, reading, say, The Call of the Wild (as my eighth graders did for years), they would come across this in Chapter One--He was a gloomy, morose fellow--and cry aloud in wonder and joy: "Morose! I know that word!"
I'm pretty sure that never happened, but at the time, I liked to imagine that it did.
TO BE CONTINUED ...