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.