Why Words Are So Important

Education expert E.D. Hirsch, Jr., writing in the Wall Street Journal:

“The federal government reported this month that students’ vocabulary scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have seen no significant change since 2009. On average, students don’t know the words they need to flourish as learners, earners or citizens.

All verbal tests are, at bottom, vocabulary tests. To predict competence most accurately, the U.S. military’s Armed Forces Qualification Test gives twice as much weight to verbal scores as to math scores, and researchers such as Christopher Winship and Anders D. Korneman have shown that these verbally weighted scores are good predictors of income level. Math is an important index to general competence, but on average words are twice as important.

Yes, we should instruct students in science, technology, engineering and math, the much-ballyhooed STEM subjects —but only after equipping them with a base of wide general knowledge and vocabulary.

Students don’t learn new words by studying vocabulary lists. They do so by guessing new meanings within the overall gist of what they are hearing or reading. And understanding the gist requires background knowledge. If a child reads that ‘annual floods left the Nile delta rich and fertile for farming,’ he is less likely to intuit the meaning of the unfamiliar words ‘annual’ and ‘fertile’ if he is unfamiliar with Egypt, agriculture, river deltas and other such bits of background knowledge.

Vocabulary-building is a slow process that requires students to have enough familiarity with the context to understand unfamiliar words. Substance, not skill, develops vocabulary and reading ability—there are no shortcuts. The slow, compounding nature of vocabulary growth means that successful reform must lie in systematic knowledge-building. That is the approach used in South Korea, Finland, Japan, Canada and other nations that score highly in international studies and succeed best in narrowing the verbal gap between rich and poor students.

The most secure way to predict whether an educational policy is likely to help restore the middle class and help the poor is to focus on the question: ‘Is this policy likely to translate into a large increase in the vocabularies of 12th-graders?’ When questions of fairness and inequality come up in discussions, parents would do well to ask whether it’s fair of schools to send young people into a world where they suffer from vocabulary inequality.” (Read more here.)

Some really striking points here: first, that while “math is an important index to general competence,” “on average words are twice as important.”

Second, that children (and adults) learn new words “by guessing new meanings within the overall gist of what they are hearing or reading”—and getting the gist requires knowing something about the subject that’s being talked about or read about.

And third, that “vocabulary inequality” is a real problem that we should be talking about—and taking steps to address.

4 Responses to “Why Words Are So Important”

  1. I have to disagree with E.D. Hirsch when he says: “Vocabulary-building is a slow process that requires students to have enough familiarity with the context to understand unfamiliar words.”

    It is possible to learn new vocab words using a made-up ‘out of context’ method—without “overall gist” or “background knowledge”—rather quickly, using technique called mnemonics. An example here:

    Also, I feel “all verbal tests” need not necessarily be “vocabulary tests.” They could be tests of reading comprehension, ability to connect discrete facts and opinions and ability to make inferences (critical reading).

    Please let me know your opinion.

  2. samhita says:

    @Mohan I agree that verbal tests shouldn’t necessarily be vocab tests. In fact I think they are pointless, especially in competitive exams. But I’ve always felt that the newly acquired vocabulary tends to be retained when you understand the meaning in context rather than through mnemonics. Of course this could simply be the view of someone who is not good at memorizing content.

    • @samhita, Mnemonics are but a tool, a catalyst, to get the process of natural contextual understanding started. Once the cognitive process of contextual meaning comprehension has started for a vocab word, the mnemonic can then naturally be slowly forgotten. The mnemonics are but an ‘aid’ for vocab learning through natural context – the best learning was and still is, through using words in sentences (as you said, by understanding the meaning in context)

      Mind quickly grasps and remembers something conveyed through stories (storytelling) – which is what mnemonics technique uses.


      P.S. In my blog I am planning to regularly post difficult vocab words along with a mnemonic technique for students trying to remember the meaning of the given word.

  3. “Students don’t learn new words by studying vocabulary lists.” True, if it’s done in isolation. Not true, if the vocabulary coaching happens in sync and intelligently incorporates words used in the current curriculum as well.

    LearnThatWord has dedicated nearly a decade of development to create a free, personalized and adaptive vocabulary coaching program online. We’re thrilled that the vocabulary gap, which is at the heart of academic and personal inequalities, is getting more attention now.

Leave a Reply

Sign up for The Brilliant Report, a monthly newsletter full of the latest findings on how to learn smarter: