Reading ability is more than memorizing vocabulary lists

So says essayist E.d. Hirsch and, as a reader, I agree.

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.

Cos Cob Library patron

Cos Cob Library patron

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.

Yet in the 1930s, American schools transformed themselves according to the principles of “progressive education,” which assume that students need to learn not a body of knowledge but “how-to” skills that (supposedly) enable them to pick up specific knowledge later on. Analyses of schoolbooks between 1940 and 1960 show a marked dilution of subject matter and vocabulary. Little surprise, then, that students began scoring lower on tests that probed knowledge and vocabulary size. The decline became alarming in the 1970s, as the federal report “A Nation at Risk” pointed out in 1983.

Come here, CC, I'll teach you to read!

Come here, CC, I’ll teach you to read!

The focus on the “skill” of reading has produced students who cannot read. Teachers cannot cultivate reading comprehension by forcing children to practice soul-deadening exercises like “finding the main idea” and “questioning the author.” Students would be better off gaining knowledge by studying real subject matters in a sensible, cumulative sequence. Instead, elementary schools are dominated by content-indifferent exercises that use random fictional texts on the erroneous assumption that reading comprehension is a formal skill akin to typing.

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

Shall we conjugate verbs together?

Wanna conjugate a verb, big guy?

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.


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20 responses to “Reading ability is more than memorizing vocabulary lists

  1. cos cobber

    Your post looked important – but I didn’t have the patience to read it.

  2. Libertarian Advocate

    So, where’s the Cos Cob library exactly?

  3. Inagua

    Chris – OT gun question: Do you use a semi-automatic rifle to hunt deer? If so, what is the caliber and magazine capacity of your deer hunting rifle?

    • Libertarian Advocate

      Lizard Boy: .308

    • Libertarian Advocate

      a/k/a 7.62 x 51

      • Inagua

        That’s the Winchester 308 and the NATO standard round, right? In a semi-automatic weapon, right? And you hunt game with this? Or is is for self-protection? Or target shooting? Forgive the rudimentary questions. I don’t own guns or hunt.

        • I have a Ruger No.1 in the .308 caliber, which is also the Nato round, 7.62 mm. It’s a caliber that’s been around since the 1950s and was, I believe, derived from the 30.06 cartridge. It is indeed used, or was used for decades, as the sniper’s bullet of choice. It is also an excellent hunting load, used for deer-sized animals in its 150 grain bullet configuration, and suitable for bear and such when loaded with a heavier 180 gr. bullet. I’ve read it is too light for elk and other large animals but of course, any bullet can kill any animal when placed in the right location.
          As an aside, and I don’t want to offend fans of the AR-15, my Ruger is a “single shot”, meaning that it has no magazine to hold additional cartridges. Shoot my Rudger once, then to reload you have to open the action (that’s, in this gun, that lever thingie below the trigger) and insert another cartridge retrieved from a side pocket or from behind your ear, raise the gun again and fire again. It effect, if you miss with the first shot, you’re not getting a second.
          And that’s partly why I bought it (besides the fact that the .308 cartridge is shorter than other hunting loads like the .270 or the aforementioned .306 which permits a shorter, lighter rifle, useful when you’re stalking through the woods all day). As a hunter, I pride myself on one shot, one kill – the risk of inflicting a lingering death on an animal by firing a flurry of shots into it, mindless of where those bullets are hitting, isn’t for me. Bears, of course, can fight back, and I understand why a bear hunter might want an ability to reload in a hurry.

          All of which is a very long answer to your question – a .308 is a common sized cartridge, fired in high volume by the military but also by hunters and target shooters. Ah! One more point, and another reason I bought a .308: because of its use by the military, you can buy military rounds, lighter than hunting loads, quite cheaply in bulk and use them for target practice, rather than firing off premium hunting rounds @$1.50 per.

    • CatoRenasci

      Did a lot of hunting as a kid – deer, small game, pheasants, ducks, geese, doves back in the old stone age. Mostly used a sporterized Springfield in 30’06 for deer. Browning auto 16 with various barrels with various chokes, depending on the birds, distance and type of shooting.
      The only times I used a semi-auto rifle for deer were 1) the time at ROTC summer camp we shot a buck with an M-14 (.308) and 2) in high school using an old M1941 Johnson semi-automatic rifle on a bet from some friends.

      • I had my father’s sporterized Springfield for years but it was so damn heavy! Swapped it even for a 1956 Winchester 1894 and probably lost out so far as value is concerned, but I got a gun that was more useful, for me.
        Never tried a M-14 on a deer – how’d that work out?

        • CatoRenasci

          Surprisingly well – he was a 3-pointer whom we’d seen all over the range for a several weeks. The last week of camp was in Season, and somehow we talked our platoon NCO/evaluator into going out with us with our M-14s and one full clip. I think he was amused and bet us we’d miss. We’d been hitting targets pretty consistently at 400 yards prone on the range, so the shot at about half of that felt easier than I think it would have at home. I liked the M-14 – a little lighter than an M-1 (though not as light as the Johnson) and a little less accurate at extreme ranges. I preferred the .30-06 cartridge to the .308/7.62NATO cartridge.

  4. Cos Cobber

    Wow, it worked. Reading is fun!

  5. Libertarian Advocate

    I don’t know what his mag capacity is. Probably 5-7 for a conventional wood stocked hunting rifle without a pistol grip.

  6. AJ

    Got a word for this lovely picture of the Republican leadership, Mr Wordsmith?

  7. Anonymous

    Where did you find evidence that a strong vocabulary is more important than excellence in math/science in determining high incomes? Silicon Valley and Wall Street would seem to contradict that finding.

    • Ask the author. As for me, I stand as living contradiction to that assertion: my vocabulary dwarfs my bank account.
      But it gives me hope for the future, if I can live to be 101.

    • AJ

      In looking at SAT scores, in my experience, the numbers are usually similar in English and math so that someone who scored 800 on English is likely to also have scored 800 on math. Words are, after all, what people use to think with, assuming you didn’t just memorize a bunch, and if you haven’t many words, it’s likely you won’t have much to think with or about.

  8. Inagua

    LA – Thanks. That’s what I was after.

  9. Al Dente

    Egad, man. This is preposterous balderdash! Could you publish some nude photos of the Aussie hurdler girl?