What My Grandfather’s Story Telling Taught Me About Vocabulary.
My grandfather could hold a crowd spellbound for hours with his ridiculous and wildly epic confabulations. Whenever he bellowed the words, “let me tell you a story”, a mob of cousins would scramble to fill the coveted spots at his feet, and the adults would nonchalantly gather round with their cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, their highballs and (in the 70’s), their cigarettes. The words flowed obediently from his lips in a steady stream of story-telling genius. His talent was endowed directly by his Creator and expanded by an intimate familiarity with the contents of the Oxford Dictionary.
Many of his generation were similarly bestowed with the gift of oration. With little available in terms of electronic distractions, they spent more time in conversation. Those with a command of the English language gained status with their peers. My grandfather, a man of great influence, practiced his craft whenever and wherever he could. With 12 siblings, 6 children, 6 spouses, 26 grandchildren and an abundance of friends, he had many opportunities. Vocabulary was simply a tool of the storytelling trade.
Then again…do they really know any better, or must we, the adults, raise the standards, shut down the boxes and redirect them to a good book? I am so guilty.
Although our electronics have advanced, the importance of vocabulary is the same as it was for prior generations dating back thousands of years. A comprehensive word portfolio allows you to speak to a broader audience, craft messages that appeal to niche markets and command influence. It also equips you to comprehend, interpret, and navigate the complexities of life. This will be of tremendous importance to our kids in a global economy.
What is the size of the average vocabulary and how do we compare to our ancestors? Many people have tried to answer this question with little success. For a variety of reasons, these attempts have not yielded much in the way of tangible data or conclusions. Certainly, vocabulary shapes perceptions. It can indicate social class and education, and even leadership capabilities. The first impressions created by what comes out of our proverbial “pie hole,” can make or break us.
We are entering an era of personal branding. I predict that soon we will hand out our blog addresses as freely as we hand out our phone numbers and email addresses. Words, and the ability to create compelling content will be more important than it ever has been. Are our kids prepared for this?
Not once did Grandpa tell me to study my vocabulary. Listening intently to his word choices and delivery taught me that words, indeed, set us apart. First impressions aside, vocabulary is the portal to comprehension and real learning. Can the difference between success and failure come down to the size of our vocabulary? Personally, I believe that if children aren’t continually learning new vocabulary, over time (i.e. 12 years of education) they will miss the benefit of thousands of words that “could have been” but were instead sucked into the black hole of wasted time and lost opportunity.
The school system is failing us also. Our schools are driven by performance on standardized testing–the holy grail of funding. As I write this article, the very questions that test the linguistic capabilities of incoming college freshmen, are systematically being removed from SAT testing requirements. By slicing away a bit here and a bit there, they are “dumbing down” the standards and lowering expectations for our children. We, the general public, remain oblivious. If vocabulary isn’t important at the college entrance level, one can ascertain it will become significantly less important in K-12. It’s simply a matter of time.
Unintentionally, adults contribute to the problem. Most of us have no reason or time to focus on expanding our vocabulary. By nature, most of us choose the path of least resistance. We’re overscheduled, overwhelmed and quite content with a word bank that matches our job requirements. For instance, a truck driver acquires the minimum language necessary to conduct business as “a trucker” as does an attorney or doctor acquire the language needed to perform his/her duties. Generally speaking, this rule holds true with the occasional exception of the savant Starbuck’s Barista or opining cab driver.
I call this triple whammy “the triad of linguistic apathy”. By analyzing the fissiparous pieces of the linguistic puzzle, it’s easy to see that a society that no longer treasures vocabulary is a society in decline. The real question is “where will this slippery slope lead?” Will it increase our standing in the worldwide education rankings? We currently rank 37th.. Doesn’t that make you proud? Can we really hope to maintain our competitive edge? What kind of future are we handing our children?
Something to think about…
I treasure the memories of my grandpa and his stories. As a kid, I appreciated the entertainment. As an adult, I realize he was a great teacher because he opened my eyes to the power of words. It’s my turn now to set an example for my kids. I have big shoes to fill, and my style is a little different than his, but I am committed to passing his gift down to my kids by sharing the fabulous world of vocabulary in my own way.
Here are 6 simple things you can do to help your kids improve their vocabulary:
- Buy a “word a day calendar” and learn about a new word during a meal. Have each person make a silly sentence using the new word.
- Have your kids give up an hour a day of television and read instead.
- Play Scrabble as a family.
- Look at your kid’s weekly spelling or vocabulary list with them and have them find synonyms and antonyms for a few of the words.
- Read as a family once a week. Have your kids guess at what new words mean based on context. Then discuss the meaning and have them use it in a way that is relevant to their life.
- Have family spelling bees and award them extra points if they can tell you the meaning of the word.
- And here’s a bonus for homeschoolers… Vocabu-Lit, English from the Roots Up, Red Hot Root Words, and Hake Grammar and Writing are incredible vocabulary programs.
What do you think? Is vocabulary important? What is going on in your schools? What’s your way of teaching it? Any great tips and resources you have found? Please share.