The Words They Know (1944)

LaBrant, L. (1944, November). The words they know. The English Journal, 33(9), 475-480.

LaBrant examines the role of vocabulary in the teaching of English. First, she unpacks the misapplication of correlating vocabulary with intelligence based on standardized tests, and then, she considers other reasons for teaching vocabulary. Most of the discussion includes detailing the then current understanding of word acquisition followed by her own proposal for how best to teach vocabulary.

Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/806883

Quoting LaBrant:

There are many causes for our concern. For one, we hear that vocabulary correlates with intelligence; hence, we decide, we should increase vocabulary. At the time of our most trusting interest in objective measurement—the 1920’s—much discussion followed the discovery that on group intelligence tests the single item most highly correlated with the total score, and consequently the best single prediction of intelligence rating, was the vocabulary score. As has been frequent in the history of human thinking, we inferred a causal relation, over-looking the fact that, since both tests were basically language, the results would naturally be similar. We were really only discovering that what we measured as “intelligence” was in large measure the ability to use school vocabulary. Nevertheless the idea persevered, and today many teachers base arguments for teaching vocabulary on the relation it bears to intelligence, although if vocabulary were causal, we should expect to move our low I.Q. pupils into a gifted group by vocabulary drills. (p. 475)

Apparently from consideration of the varied forms which “vocabulary” may take, and the amazing extent of the vocabulary which even the dullest student has, we have a more complicated problem than our exercises and assignments suggest….It is not, however, the number of words alone which is important. It is the depth of meaning. This also comes from experience. (p. 477)

Vocabulary range for a class of English-speaking pupils is therefore so wide as to make futile our selection of any particular list of words for teaching except for specific situations; and the full meaning of a word is so complicated that to teach even a small number thoroughly is a long-term task. (p. 478)

The following suggestions seem to be implied by the findings and observations stated.

1. We can extend vocabulary by providing a wealth of rich experiences: trips, hand work, discussion, reading….

2. We can bring into the classroom more personal writing, and more talk about personal experiences, introducing thereby the vocabulary which eludes us, but which needs better understanding and use. So-called “free” writing is excellent for this. …

3. We can take time to expand meanings….

4. We can teach students to learn meanings from context. This is the natural way….

5. We can help students judge meanings of words by those previously known….

6. We can undoubtedly teach our students something about the nature of symbols….(pp. 478-479)

…we can teach pupils that words have more than a literal or defined meaning: they carry feeling overtones which make them rich and beautiful as in poetry but often also dangerous and misleading in arguments….We cannot foresee all these needs. There are 750,000 words in English. We can encourage the use of what the student knows, deepen his understanding of the possibilities in a word (poetry is ideal for this), open his eyes to the simple ways for learning new words (context, and, this failing, the dictionary, encyclopedia, history, science book, or other reference), and teach him to respect the word he speaks and writes. The drive to lift his vocabulary will then be his own. (p. 480)

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About plthomasedd

P. L. Thomas, Associate Professor of Education (Furman University, Greenville SC), taught high school English in rural South Carolina before moving to teacher education. He is a column editor for English Journal (National Council of Teachers of English) and series editor for Critical Literacy Teaching Series: Challenging Authors and Genres (Sense Publishers), in which he authored the first volume—Challenging Genres: Comics and Graphic Novels (2010). He has served on major committees with NCTE, and has been named Council Historian (2013-2015), and formerly served as co-editor for The South Carolina English Teacher for SCCTE. Recent books include Ignoring Poverty in the U.S.: The Corporate Takeover of Public Education (Information Age Publishing, 2012) and Parental Choice?: A Critical Reconsideration of Choice and the Debate about Choice (Information Age Publishing, 2010).He has also published books on Barbara Kingsolver, Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood, and Ralph Ellison. His scholarly work includes dozens of works in major journals—English Journal, English Education, Souls, Notes on American Literature, Journal of Educational Controversy, Journal of Teaching Writing, and others. His commentaries have been included in Room for Debate (The New York Times), The Answer Sheet (Washington Post), The Guardian (UK), truthout, Education Week, The Daily Censored, OpEdNews, The State (Columbia, SC), The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, NC), The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC) and The Greenville News (Greenville, SC). His work can be followed at the becoming radical (http://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/) and @plthomasEdD on twitter. View all posts by plthomasedd

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