Vocabulary Acquisition, Part Two:
Theoretical and Practical Considerations
by Russell D. Hendrix
Let us begin to look at the practical aspects of vocabulary building. The
practical need for vocabulary augmentation is glaring, and growing even
more so with each passing year. Staying with the practical value of the
subject, I will quote from Donald Ayers (mid-20th century): “It has been
stated on the basis of a study of student academic mortality at one large
university, for instance, that the lack of an adequate vocabulary is the
most important single factor contributing to failure in college. Other
statistical studies have shown the close correlation between extent of
vocabulary and success in college.” One can argue that many college
courses no longer use lecture, or that technology has made extent of
vocabulary less practically important, or propound other arguments of
this nature. I do not intend to address them here. If you are reading this
post, you probably already are convinced of the subject’s importance.
Therefore, let us examine various approaches to vocabulary building.
One approach that seems to be popular with contemporaries involved in
classical education mainly uses word roots, usually Latin and sometimes
Greek, to help students acquire an understanding of more English words.
This approach has much to commend it. It reinforces the learning of
Latin vocabulary and allows students to understand word connections in
English, which they may not have otherwise seen. This approach also has
the advantage of being very systematic in design and implementation,
thereby, making it easy to use in a homeschool environment or classroom
setting. The advocates of this approach note the high percentage of
English words derived from Greek and Latin roots as making it a logical
approach to vocabulary building.
Another approach that also follows the word-list method is used in books
like Wordly Wise. Here, the words are learned more by reading and using
them in various contexts. The lists are chosen for their fittingness for
each grade level. Over the years Wordly Wise has added more instruction
in roots and their Latin or Greek origins.
The last approach I will mention is the one I used when an interest in
word study was first kindled in me. I began reading daily and widely in
various important and seminal works. As I encountered words I did not
know, I exhumed their definitions from my dictionary and wrote them in
composition books. I later reviewed the composition books on a regular
basis. One advantage to this approach is that it utilizes the truth that
words are used in particular contexts and often carry with them a
context much broader than the meaning of the word, and this broader
context cannot be gleaned from an understanding of individual words
mastered in word-lists.
To see the practical value in this approach, let us examine it using a case
study. I just walked over to one of my book cases and pulled three
important books out: The Federalist Papers (Hamilton, Madison, Jay,
18th century), PENSÉE S (Pascal, 17 th century, translated from French to
English in Great Books), The Evolution of Medieval Thought (David
Knowles, 1962). I open The Federalist Papers to #1, written by Alexander
Hamilton, and published in four New York City newspapers. I see
“unequivocal, inefficacy, inducements, philanthropy, judicious,
comprehending, solicitude, deliberations, perplexed, unbiased” in the
first two paragraphs. This book is recommended in many classical
programs. Do the students understand what they are reading? What has
prepared them to read this? Or, are they learning the words as they read?
Or, are they perhaps just reading and getting very little, if anything, from
it, besides a headache or a distaste for old books?
I open Knowles’ book. I see “perceptible, dialectic, volition, conation,
demarcation, eloquence, tenacity, artificer, abstractions” on just over one
page of text.
I open Pascal. I see “worldly, dejection, sublime, expel, indelible,
deplorable, concupiscence” all on one short page.
Many questions now arise. Would any word-list approach have prepared
the student to read these books? Probably not. Would the defining of
words read in books give one as systematic an understanding as can be
gained from root study? Probably not. Can any one of the above
mentioned approaches be considered absolutely best? In my mind, the
answer is “no.” Do they all have merits? Yes, I think so.
Since this is getting long for a blog post, I will end here and let the reader
ask his or her own questions and draw conclusions therefrom.
Russell D. Hendrix
As modern Americans, when confronted with almost any traditional
educational endeavor, most of us (parents and students) are inclined
to ask two questions: 1) What is the practical value in doing this?
2) How is it best or most effectively done? Both questions illustrate the
nearly exclusive preoccupation with pragmatic concerns, and both
questions show that most modern people in this society hold
philosophical assumptions that cause them to sense that something has
been adequately explained to them, when only pragmatic concerns have
been addressed, a symptom of the myopia of our age.
I intend to address some of these practical questions as they relate to
vocabulary development. However, I am beginning with an approach
that should grow organically from a mind that has been thoroughly
disciplined (i.e., “instructed”: its original Latin meaning) by classical
studies. One of the insights of Greek antiquity, an insight that
continued to be held and refined through the Christian Middle Ages, is
that education perfects man qua man. That is, education mainly
attempts to bring a person to completion by guiding, nurturing,
strengthening, and helping the person flourish in those aspects of his
being that mark him off from lower creatures.
Now, the above statement is going to require a short explanation. For
most of these educated men, “man” (the word used generically here,
just as it was by them, to refer to man and woman—human) was
considered a rational animal. Man had in common with the lower
animal world a sensitive and appetitive anima/soul/life, capable of
physical pleasure, pain and suffering, and appetite or desire or being
drawn to an object. However, man differed from the lower animal
world in that his soul/life/anima was characterized by reason,
encompassing rational thought and will. (Famous Christian thinkers like
Augustine [354-430] explained this in Christian terms as a hierarchy of
created order. God is at the top (uncreated), followed by angels (created,
but non-physical), then man (physical body and sensitive soul, yet
rational with a will, in common with the angels and analogous to that in
God, having a foot in two different worlds, so to speak), then higher
animals, then plants, and finally, things without life, such as rocks,
Thus, education that perfects man qua man is focused on truth, wisdom,
beauty, morality (virtue, the right use of the will), and those aspects of
our lives that separate us from the animals. Language falls squarely in
this human territory. Most of our thought-life, the intellectual legacy
bequeathed to us, and those elements that yield human culture and
civilization in the present are integrally related to human language.
Therefore, any issue that relates to our language should be of interest to
us, following the scale of values that is derived from the scale of being
(the created hierarchy).
Since I am trying to make this relatively brief, I will desist from further
discussion of the theoretical considerations that ground the desirability
of vocabulary acquisition. Yet, hopefully the reader can see that I have
placed our topic in a theoretical framework that comes from the classical
world. In Part Two I will consider practical concerns in vocabulary
This is my 11th year teaching literature as a homeschool mama. I don't
have a degree in English, but I enjoy literature and after this many years
teaching my children I've learned a few things. Here are a few tips:
write, he is basically dictating from his own brain, which is the
process needed for composition.
from dictation about every other week. This is a classical skill
because it puts "first things first." (See previous point.)
shows you what the student knows and gives them practice (again) with
composing good thoughts. Train them not to say "um" and "like."
wisdom are gleaned from examples in classical stories.
This time of year everything is fresh and new--new books, new schedule,
a fresh school planner. A new school year is like a nice, clean whiteboard.
(Don't you just love a clean whiteboard?)
The wheels of each new subject seem to creak along, waiting some
months before truly gaining momentum. I tend to be impatient with
this pace. However, years of educating classically have helped me to
see that the beginning, the slow-building, is so necessary. Too fast and
new material runs off instead of soaking in. Festina lente (make haste
slowly) is a trustworthy maxim.
The Olympic motto, "Citius, Altius, Fortius" (Faster, Higher, Stronger) tells
us of a heroic goal, but it cannot be attained without slow training
exercises first. Ah! This is classical. First things first! Whether phonics,
Latin, geography, or do-re-mi. Truth, beauty, and goodness are not cheap;
they are not attained quickly.
When working with our students, our gift to them is our
confidence and assurance that slowly-slowly, precept-upon-precept,
mastery will be achieved. Patient plodding is rewarded by knowledge
that is rooted deeply. Festina lente.