As a writing teacher, I talk about vocabulary a lot. After all, words are essential tools for writers. Even more important, words make thinking possible. They give shape to our thoughts, enabling us to identify and clarify what’s in our minds.
So, the more words we know, the more “thinking” we can do, and the more effectively we can communicate with others whether speaking or writing.
Yet, vocabulary knowledge seems to be shrinking. The average middle and high school student today knows fewer words than their counterparts did even thirty years ago. What matters isn’t word knowledge for the sake of knowing many words. Or the ability to use “fancy” words for the sake of sounding important when a simpler word will do. What matters is having ready access to enough words to enable us to tap into our minds and our potential as thinkers.
This kind of practical word knowledge is more important now than ever. In today’s current global economy, knowledge and information drive economic wealth. Our economy depends more on the application of knowledge, in other words brain work, than on production.
In my own work as a writing tutor, I often compare word knowledge to money in the bank. Given a choice between two bank accounts, I ask my students, which would they choose–one with $100 and one with $1,000,000? They always choose the million dollars. “It’s a no brainer,” they say. What about vocabulary knowledge, I ask. ? Extending the analogy, I ask if they would prefer to know 100 words or 1,000,000. Again, they choose the larger number. Although I’m probably stretching the analogy somewhat to make the point, I want students to connect vocabulary knowledge with power; and see that a rich vocabulary pays dividends by enabling them to communicate effectively.
The writing process itself provides an excellent way to build vocabulary knowledge. Students can approach their paper and essay assignments as opportunities to learn and practice using new words in writing. I worked with one freshman from Lyme-Old Lyme High School for the entire school year. Our focus was on building critical thinking skills and vocabulary through writing. By June, the student’s papers reflected a significantly richer vocabulary and more depth of analysis as a result.