Thursday, January 15, 2009

Building a Vocabulary One Word at a Time

Clooney reading.

One of the most awful motherly things I did when my kids were in middle school-early high school, was to leave words and their meanings on their bedside table. I don't know where I got the idea--it was probably my own. Awful, I know and they gleefully tell this story at holiday dinners. There's an even worse one my husband tells about sewing his pockets closed.

But now the venerable institution I work for doing it too. Word Warriors and here, is an attempt to increase the vocabulary of Wayne State University students. This seems like something that should have be done--well, about the time I did it with my kids. Middle School. I wonder if we learn words this way anyway. It seems to me the best way to improve our vocabulary is by reading. How do you learn new words most often?

While Lake Superior State College is removing unnecessary words and phrases, WSU is bringing them back into action. Go on and add some of your favorites. Or remove some.


David Cranmer said...

My parents flooded me with story books as a child. They read to me every night at bedtime the same Curious George books and then introduced me to The Hardy Boys.

Sepiru Chris said...

Hello Pattinase,

I used to burn my sheets with lightbulbs, by accident, as a child while reading.

I never achieved asbestos skin, but my word count increased proportionally with the cotton scorch marks in the bed.

The challenge I found was that I was, and am, accused of using $5 words, and am told that 10 (hmm, European keyboards do not have the cent sign anywhere...) cent words would do.

I never understood this relative valuation of words.

Why would some words be cheaper or more expensive than others? And why would someone deliberately use a lower value word?

I enjoy words like meretricious.

I have no idea why everyone would not want to use words like this.

I am with WSU and find myself distinctly opposed to the actions of LSSC.


Anonymous said...

I, for one, would like to hear the story about you sewing your husband's pockets closed. I read to my children every day. By the age of three, my son could read. By the age of four, my daughter could read. They seemed to pick it up by osmosis from my reading to them. I suspect we build vocabularies from reading. It's no surprise that poor readers have poor vocabularies.
--George Kelley

Charles Gramlich said...

We're doing a word a day in our writing class this year. First class, first word was segue.

Today's word is corpulent.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Reading is essential. I used to read with a flashlight. I think most of us did. Especially comic books, which were easier in the dark.
The pocckets story is too looney to admit to.
Corpulent is a good after holiday word. Maybe a love of language can be instilled even as late as college.

Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

One thing that helps is not speaking "baby talk" when they're small--and never "talk down" to them, either. Read to them every day. My oldest daughter started kindergarten with a sixth grade vocabulary. Her little sister starts school next year, and it's the same with her.

Scott D. Parker said...

My wife and I read every night to our son. The first long-form book we read was one of those Big/Little books with Tom and Jerry. I remember the first night, when I only read chapter 1, when my looked at me as if to say "Aren't you going to finish?" Now, we're branching into actual novels: Spiderwyck (Christmas present). My mom read Wizard of Oz, Hundred and One Dalmations, and others (Ben and Me) back in the day.

Jacob Weaver said...

The Hardy Boys and S.E. Hinton taught me more about vocabulary growing up than any of my vocabulary lessons.

Now that I'm older I don't necessarily like learning new words while reading all the time. Sometimes I think the really big words, that are rarely used, can be a distraction; especially if the entire text is littered with them. I like to be sucked in to a story and not be distracted by words that I have to look up just to understand what the writer is trying to say.

Sometimes you want to watch Benjamin Button but sometimes you just want to watch Batman kick some ass.

John McFetridge said...

Is a smaller but well-understood vocabulary really a bad thing? Isn't this just word inflation? Lake Superior State is right, the problem is too many words and a lack of clarity in what people say.

We see it most in business, where we make fun of it all the time, we make fun of it in government statements, but we admire it in literature? I don't get it.

But I would like to hear the story about sewing the pockets closed.

With however many words you chose to use (or utilize, if we're in business).

Todd Mason said...

Well, if tailors sew pockets closed (as some do)...

My youthful problem was in reading words and gathering a good or excellent knowledge of their meaning and connotations, but being too lazy to look up their received pronunciation. I had few peoople at various times to bring up such in conversation.

Lisa said...

I think we pick up our vocabulary from wherever we're exposed to language. If it's through conversation, reading, movies or television, we learn the words that we hear. Ever since I started reading Proust, the dictionary has been my constant companion and I love noting so many new words. Many of them I've seen, but rarely seen used, some I don't think I've ever seen and some I've seen often but now that I'm so quick to look up a word, I've gone back and looked up lots of words where I assumed a meaning and was close, but not quite right.

Lots of people resist the use of an expanded vocabulary but do it anyway, they just do it in the form of neologisms and slang. There are so many words that we don't much use because possibly people perceive them as being pretentious, but they are so much more precise than the common words we recycle all the time.

I find a book that uses a reasonably sophisticated vocabulary (and I don't mean one full of archaic language) to be far more interesting than one that's been dumbed down.

There's a bit of reverse snobbery in our culture, I think. We have a great language with thousands of words we hardly use. I'd prefer to run into more words that have fallen out of common use and less slang any day.

John McFetridge said...

Oh, there's a lot of reverse snobbery and outright anti-intellectualism these days, but I would argue that a simpler vocabulary in fiction doesn't necessarily mean dumbed down. It's a stylistic choice.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Here I am, grandson gone and interesting to see how much a two-year old loves words. Especially two or three word phrases and I wonder if he realizes at 26 months that it is a bunch of words and not one. Like "here we go." Throw a phrase like upsy-daisy at him and he loves saying it.
The pocket story later. If I have the nerve to tell it.

Lisa said...

John, I think you're absolutely right. It is a stylistic choice and readers will gravitate toward the writers with styles they enjoy.

I misspoke and have rethought what I said about a dumbing down effect. Thanks for helping me clarify my thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Patti, not that you'd do such a thing but your sewing reference reminded me of a story Willie Nelson tells--apparently he came home drunk for the umpteenrh time to his umpteenth wife. She'd had enough of it so she waited until he passed out before patiently sewing him up in the bedsheet...then commenced to beating the hell out of him with a broom. On The Road Again indeed.
[Psst,sorry, I forgot Clarity Of Night was having another shindig. Sandra Seamans has a wonderful wee story there. And one of the funniest three word phrases I've read in ages.]
John McAuley

Anonymous said...

Duh, meant to say, "Sorry I forgot to tell you that Clarity of Night..etc.etc."
John McAuley

pattinase (abbott) said...

maybe not as bad as Willie's wife, but not good.

Todd Mason said...

Sewing down an abusive husband is the subject of at least one old English ballad...

Juri said...

I once heard a story from some guy I used to know. He played around in rock bands and everyone used to get drunk everytime they played. They had this roadie who was always drunk and when he was drunk, he got irritating. One time he passed out on the floor and the other guys, bored at him, zipped close his jacket and nailed the jacket to the floor. When the guy woke up, he couldn't get away.

Never heard how the story went on from this.

Patti, when I told my wife the sewing story, she asked whether you opened your husband's backpockets.

Barbara Martin said...

My mother, grandmother and great-aunt bought my brothers and I books with which to increase our vocabulary. By reading different topics and different levels of books, one garners new words.

Anonymous said...

I would be thrilled if someone left me a new word on my bedside table every morning. That's the ultimate luxury-turndown service!

pattinase (abbott) said...

Somehow I feel you know all the words already, Kathe. Are you coming to Michael Zadoorians's readings?