How Can Children Understand the Vocabulary of Good Books?

American poet and author Phyllis McGinley says:

“Whose invention was this vocabulary restriction I cannot say [I can!]. Librarians deplore the trend, publishers disclaim responsibility, authors declare themselves stifled by it, children detest it. But the fact remains that somebody has set up as gospel the rule that odd words, long words, interesting words, grown-up words must be as precisely sifted out from a book… as chaff from wheat or profanity from a television program…. “Read-it-yourself” books now come cleverly planned around a vocabulary of three hundred fifty words or thereabouts, and the fact that they are often clever and occasionally brilliantly ingenious does not alter their crippling formula.
Are children never to climb? Must they be saved from all the healthy bumps and bruises of exploration? I suppose the theory drifted down from textbooks, those teacher’s-college-tested readers which are the common and insipid fare of elementary schools. Like many bad things, they were inspired by good intentions. Children, said the educationalists, must be gently led along the path to learning, seduced not prodded. So a vocabulary must be acquired in standard stages and according to procedures formed in a laboratory.”

Children once, Mrs. McGinley points out, read Fox’s Book of Martyrs and theological treatises for little Pilgrims, as well as Pilgrim’s Progress, and Robinson Crusoe.  Quite uneducated children read those books with, and for, pleasure.

We dilute children’s books and stories, weakening them, robbing them of their power when we imagine our children cannot understand without endless vocabulary exercises, quizzes, and worksheets.

Some children will benefit by having a parent or teacher read ahead and pick out a very scant handful of words which are not obviously understood via context, and which our children would not know.  We should limit ourselves to perhaps  2-5 words at most, even if there are more words than that we imagine they won’t understand.  While this advance work can be useful, it’s like salt.  Because a pinch of salt improves the recipe, we do not then add a cup and expect our soup to taste even better.   Overdoing this gentle, light approach by adding more and more vocabulary word and exercises and turning it into projects is like pouring a canister of salt into the soup. Rather than flavoring the soup, you have ruined it. A scant 2 or 3 advance vocabulary words can be just enough to give the child confidence, to open his eyes to finding context for other words, to give him a taste for words, and for the story.  Filling up his time an cramping his hands with vocabulary lists kills the flavor of the reading.

And only do this in advance- never in the middle of a reading (unless the child asks, and even then, if you see the question is shortly answered in the context of the story, tell him to wait and see.  Don’t interrupt the story for your digressions:

We then quickly explain the meaning before the reading, perhaps writing down the words on an index card and having the child write down a short definition of their own. Using the index card for a bookmark will be useful for many children, as well.  However,

“Don’t stop (I say) to explain …. Just go on reading, as well as you can, and be sure that when the children get the thrill of the story, for which you wait, they will be asking more questions, and pertinent ones, than you are able to answer.”—(“On the Art of Reading for Children,” by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. More here.)

I know to many it feels wrong to hand kids advanced books and not give them a vocabulary test- or rather, at least two, a before and after.  But that’s because our public school approach to vocabulary words is institutionalized and not really how most of us learn words when we are young.   I have reached the conclusion that culturally, our approach to schooling has done to education, to the life of the mind, what Michael Pollan says we have done to food- we have separated it out into unrelated, unconnected strands, teased it to bits, and turned it into fancily labeled (active enzymes!  New! Improved! ) packages of cardboard within and cardboard without- books are delivery systems.  But this is wrong.

Unless the child has a neurological or physical complication, you do not approach good health with the normal five year old by saying, “Okay, junior, today we will work on building up your abs.” You just encourage a wide range of healthy physical play. And that’s the approach Miss Mason takes to writing and reading and vocabulary and all those skills we call language arts.  She doesn’t isolate skills and work on them outside of any meaningful context.

The children spend years learning all about language, written and spoken, through immersion.  Later they’ll be able apply what they have learned and work individually in any areas where they need extra help. (more here)


So vocabulary need not be covered as a separate, stand-alone topic, especially not before high school (when you might introduce Latin and Greek roots, mainly for the sake of the tests for college).  Children will learn through context and repeated exposure in well written books.  When you do need to give them a hand, it’s still in the context of the books they are actually reading, and you add vocabulary with a light hand- just a couple words, very carefully chosen.

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