Vocabulary and Intelligence

Here’s an interesting article by E. D. Hirsch, founder of the CORE curriculum project and author of the CORE knowledge books. He talks about how poorly our students are doing after they graduate, presuming they do graduate, and why:

” And for guidance on what helps students finish college and earn more income, we should consider the SAT, whose power to predict graduation rates is well documented. The way to score well on the SAT—at least on the verbal SAT—is to have a large vocabulary. As the eminent psychologist John Carroll once observed, the verbal SAT is essentially a vocabulary test.

So there’s a positive correlation between a student’s vocabulary size in grade 12, the likelihood that she will graduate from college, and her future level of income. The reason is clear: vocabulary size is a convenient proxy for a whole range of educational attainments and abilities—not just skill in reading, writing, listening, and speaking but also general knowledge of science, history, and the arts. If we want to reduce economic inequality in America, a good place to start is the language-arts classroom.”

I think the one thing that helps kids really develop a meaningfully large vocabulary also gives them that general knowledge that leads to success is reading widely and well.  We abandoned that goal in our schools about a hundred years ago.

Early in the twentieth century, a well-meant but inadequate conception of education became dominant in the United States. It included optimism about children’s natural development, a belief in the unimportance of factual knowledge and book learning, and a corresponding belief in the importance of training the mind through hands-on practical experience. In the 1920s and 1930s, these ideas began spreading to teacher-training institutions. It took two or three decades for the new teachers and administrators to take over from the old and for the new ideas to revolutionize schoolbooks and classroom practices. The first students to undergo this new schooling therefore began kindergarten in the 1950s and arrived in 12th grade in the 1960s.

Their test scores showed the impact of the new ideas. From 1945 to 1967, 12th-graders’ verbal scores on the SAT and other tests had risen. But then those scores plummeted. Cornell economist John Bishop wrote in the 1980s of “the historically unprecedented nature of the test score decline that began around 1967. Prior to that year test scores had been rising steadily for 50 years.” The scores reached their nadir around 1980 and have remained low ever since.

We lowered our expectations, continue dumbing down both textbooks and the books we expect children to read (or don’t expect them to read much at all, with what should be predictable results.

“…sociologist Donald Hayes, showed that the decline of the verbal SAT scores was indeed correlated with a dumbing-down of American schoolbooks. Following the lead of the great literacy scholar Jeanne Chall, Hayes found that publishers, under the influence of progressive educational theories, had begun to use simplified language and smaller vocabularies. Hayes demonstrated that the dilution of knowledge and vocabulary, rather than poverty, explained most of the test-score drop.

Charlotte Mason, that Victorian/Edwardian educator who was ahead of her time, believed in giving children a wide and generous education, based on the best that was available in books, books that used complex language to express complex ideas.  She also said that education was the science of relations, and a successful Charlotte Mason education results in children (and adults) who are good at making connections.  You can’t read those books in that wide and generous education without developing a good vocabulary.

Why should vocabulary size be related to achieved intelligence and real-world competence? Though the intricate details of cognitive abilities are under constant study and refinement, it’s possible to give a rough answer. The space where we solve our problems is called “working memory.” For everyone, even geniuses, it’s a small space that can hold only a few items in suspension for only a few seconds. If one doesn’t make the right connections within that space, one has to start over again. Hence, one method for coping and problem solving is to reduce the number of items that one has to make sense of at any moment. The psychologist George A. Miller called that process “chunking.” Telephone numbers and Social Security numbers are good examples. The number (212) 374-5278, written in three chunks, is a lot easier to cope with than 2123745278.

Words are fantastically effective chunking devices. Suppose you put a single item into your working memory—say, “Pasteur.” So long as you hold in your long-term memory a lot of associations with that name, you don’t need to dredge them up and try to cram them into your working memory. The name serves as a brief proxy for whatever aspects will turn out to be needed to cope with your problem. The more readily available such proxies are for you, the better you will be at dealing with various problems. Extend this example to whole spheres of knowledge and experience, and you’ll realize that a large vocabulary is a powerful coping device that enhances one’s general cognitive ability.

Quite often we assume that the vocabulary comes first, and then you get to the reading, but we learn the vocabulary through the reading, not the other way ’round.  I’ve written before about the educational and vocabulary deficits one of our children experienced.  This was our child who came to us through adoption when she was nearly four.  Once we started school with her, she really struggled, and so did I, thinking I needed to get her language abilities up to a certain level before we really dove into a CM education.  But it was frustrating for both of us, and one day I decided to toss that thinking aside, and we began with King Midas and the Golden Touch.  She now reads War and Peace for fun.

If vocabulary is related to achieved intelligence and to economic success, our schools need to figure out how to encourage vocabulary growth. They should understand, for starters, that word-learning occurs slowly and through a largely unconscious process. Consider the word “excrescence.” Few know the word; fewer still encounter it in their everyday lives. Maybe you do know it, but imagine that you don’t.

Now suppose I gave it to you in a sentence: “To calculate fuel efficiency, the aerospace engineers needed an accurate estimation of excrescence drag caused by the shape of the plane’s cabin.” That single exposure to the word is probably insufficient for you to grasp its meaning, though if you know something about aerospace engineering, you’ll be likelier to make a good approximation. Here’s an encounter in another context: “Excrescences on the valves of the heart have been known to cause a stroke.” Perhaps now you have a vague understanding of the word. A third meaningful encounter will allow you to check your understanding or refine your sense of the meaning: “The wart, a small excrescence on his skin, had made Jeremy self-conscious for years.” By now, you probably have a pretty solid understanding of the word, and one more encounter in a familiar context should verify your understanding: “At the far end of the meadow was what, at first glance, I thought a huge domed building, and then saw was an excrescence from the cliff itself.”

You’ve probably figured out that the word “excrescence” means “an outgrowth.” That’s an accelerated, artificial example of how word-learning occurs. The sense of a word that a listener or reader gains from multiple exposures to it isn’t a fixed and definite meaning but rather a system of meaning possibilities that get narrowed down through context on each occasion. As Miller showed, knowledge of a word is a memory residue of several meaningful encounters with the word in diverse contexts. We retain bits of those past contexts in memory as part of the word’s meaning-potential. Almost all the word meanings that we know are acquired indirectly by intuitively guessing new meanings as we get the overall gist of what we’re hearing or reading.

 

There’s much more at the link, because the above was taken from a much longer article that is well worth your time.

Back in 1960, Phyllis McGinley wrote that:

the mass of writing is limp, listless, unoriginal, mediocre, and humdrum. Plots are insipid or mechanical. Too many pictures smother the story. And even when the writing lifts itself above accepted “juvenile” standards, its vigor is drained away by that leech among publishing structures- the Law of the Right Vocabulary.’

We’re failing our children and ourselves.  Make a difference.  Read to the children in your life.  Bring in some children and read to them.  Read hard things.  Because the fluff that we mistakenly call ‘readers’ is giving our children stones for bread.

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4 Comments

  1. Liz
    Posted February 5, 2013 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    As a beginning home educator, I greatly appreciate your articles. I’ve just followed the link from this page to your post entitled “Stone for Bread”. I started off the flash-cards-and-workbooks route, which we have rapidly abandoned as my 6-year-old daughter hates them. Real books, however, have piqued her interest, and suddenly she can read things I was despairing of her ever getting.

    I wonder how far you agree with this statement: that children need/like to know the point of what they are doing, and if they can’t see a point to what they are learning they will struggle, or will dislike it. An obedient child may still comply, but may lack that spark unless they understand the reason behind what they are doing. For example, a child may refuse to do flashcards and alphabet drill, but when the understand that these are the building blocks of being able to read those interesting books themselves, they are much more willing. What do you think?

    • Headmistress, zookeeper
      Posted February 5, 2013 at 10:34 am | Permalink

      I think both- that it’s important for them to comply out of obedience, and it’s good for parents to help their children to understand that there is a point to what they are doing. Sometimes, it just has to be out of obedience, as I also think that there will be times they don’t have the maturity or experience to be able to understand and/or appreciate the reason for some of the early steps of schooling.

  2. Posted February 6, 2013 at 5:47 am | Permalink

    I love this article! I have a very good speed reader on my hands in the form of an 8 year old girl! :) She is currently reading atleast two grade levels above normal, and I think she will greatly benefit from reading some of the older literature that just isn’t required of children anymore, especially the older she gets. What books would you suggest having available for children to read that aren’t found in most school’s reading programs anymore?

    • Headmistress, zookeeper
      Posted February 6, 2013 at 7:55 am | Permalink

      Take a look at the booklist at AmblesideOnline.org. For your purposes, especially look at the free reading books for each year, and go ahead and begin in year one, because the years are advanced. You might also find this list useful. Have fun! Our Pip was and is our speed reader.

One Trackback

  1. By Terrible Tuesday, the Return « Oddly Said on February 5, 2013 at 10:15 pm

    [...] enough, a Charlotte Mason influenced homeschooler would put my thoughts into print.  And voila! The Deputy Headmistress has done it much better than I would have.  It boils down to this: Read good, real books. Read them to your kids. Have your kids read them. [...]

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