Why Vocabulary Matters
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Words Have Meaning

I have been an avid reader all my life. I was homeschooled through 9th grade, so I had plenty of time to read. My yearly booklists in my portfolio usually had 50-70 books listed, and they were just samplings of what I read because I didn’t always remember to write down the title and author before returning books to the library. I read multiple genres. I read books written in different centuries.

Any time I encountered a word I didn’t know, I would look it up in the dictionary, and then reread the passage to understand what was written. A running joke in my AP English class my senior year was that every book our teacher mentioned, I had already read. For the most part, it was true. I had read C.S. Lewis, Sophocles, Shakespeare, Spencer, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Isaac Asimov, Aldous Huxley, Tolkien, Orwell, Thomas Hardy, Hemingway, all 3 Bronte sisters, Jane Austen…I could go on. And one thing I gained from all the reading was an extensive vocabulary.

My English teacher in high school asked me to be a peer editor for my classmates. They would bring me their essays, poems, book reports, and research reports, and I would look for errors. Two instances still stand out in my memory. First, the essay was about a childhood memory. My classmate referred to her “gift of crowns” and how she put them on a shelf in her room and wouldn’t play with them because she was afraid of breaking them, but she loved to look at her crowns. I thought that needed more explanation, so I highlighted the paragraph and asked her to explain what she was supposed to do with her crowns in the first place. Her response was to stare at me, blankly for a minute, then she wrinkled her nose at me and said, “Uhhhh….color??” Her gift was not actually “crowns,” but “crayons.” I corrected her spelling/word use, and her only response was, “Whatever.”

The second essay was a well-written short story about a character reminiscing about childhood and realizing how fleeting life is. The author had clearly used a thesaurus at one point, without actually knowing the definition of the word. They referred to the “familiar stench of childhood in the air.” I suggested that stench, by definition, has negative connotations, and unless they truly meant that childhood smelled terrible, they should use “scent, essence, fragrance” to conjure pleasant imagery. The response was a wrinkled brow, and a muttered, “Whatever.”

I mentally edit everything I read. I catch spelling errors and incorrect words in so many writings. I have been told before that “It doesn’t really matter if that’s what the word ACTUALLY means if you can figure out what their point was.” I strongly disagree, and here’s why. If you are speaking to someone, you can ask questions and understand what they are trying to say through discussion. When you are simply reading something, there IS no way to question the author, so you must draw your own conclusion based on what is written. And a simple choice of words can change your entire meaning. In society today, it seems like the tendency is to not worry about what is actually said, as long as the intent was ok. But if the author isn’t worried about correctness and clarity, words and meanings can be twisted.

Back to my first example: if I hadn’t clarified, and instead assumed the girl had literally been given crowns, anyone reading her essay could have pictured a child handed actual crowns as a gift. It would have been weird, but there was no context, so her entire meaning was lost because she misspelled a word, and it changed the entire meaning of her story.

The more children read the more exposed they are to language and words. They will gain the ability to assess what is being said and to infer meanings based on context clues. They will also become aware of word meanings and be better equipped to determine if something seems off. But reading isn’t the only way you can help your children build their vocabulary. BJU Press Homeschool curriculum incorporates dictionary skills into spelling lessons. They also teach critical thinking skills in reading. Students learn to assess and interpret stories based on context, while also learning how to research if they come across words they don’t recognize. Spelling then transitions into vocabulary, in which students learn how to decipher meaning based on etymology, and how to study on their own to learn the meaning of new words. The vocabulary lessons will teach students to choose not just the correct word, but also the best word, based on what thought they are trying to convey.

In the world of Twitter, hashtagging, and emojis, our children must learn to speak and write with clarity, so they can identify truth when it is spoken or written and be able to recognize ambiguity and point out fallacies in arguments. We need to equip our children with the ability to reason, judge, and to look through the “intentions” to the heart of the matter and find the truth without confusion.

Find out more about the importance of vocabulary here.

Meet the Author

Abigail Knott - HomeWorks by Precept Consultant


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