Vocabulary And Words Can Be Twice As Important As Maths And Science

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 maths scores, and researchers such as Christopher Winship and Anders D. Korneman have shown that these verbally weighted scores are good predictors of income level. maths 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 maths, 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 “maths 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.

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