Home > Articles > Raising Literacy Part 5

Raising Literacy Part 5:
Defining Words

by Bill Lauritzen

A school subject is sort of like a human body. A body is a complex organism, which is made of cells, which are made of molecules, which are made of compounds, which are made of elements. Everything in the universe is made of these 110 or so elements.

A school subject is made of chapters, which are made of paragraphs, which are made of sentences, which are made of words.

Words are the elements of schooling. If one understands the words, one can understand the sentences, the paragraphs, the chapter, and the subject. It’s usually that simple.

Eventually, if one understands all the words, one can make original contributions to a subject, as he or she begins to see its strengths and weaknesses. Or one may invent an entirely new subject.

Let me quote R. Buckminster Fuller, inventor of the geodesic dome, “Whenever you come to a word with which you are not familiar, find it in the dictionary...” L. Ron Hubbard, despite some of his bizarre teachings, was also smart enough to emphasize the importance of the dictionary. He realized that psychologists and educational specialists become unnecessarily complex when trying to solve the problems of education. Often, all that’s needed is to define the words.

So get every word defined well. Attack the word if you are unsure of it. Tackle unknown words to the ground. Get every word linked or anchored to the real world. Get the word grounded. Know what you are talking about; know what you are doing. Use word meaning attack or word tackling.

If you are a teacher and you think it would be next to impossible for your students to understand the words in your subject, then they are in water way over their heads. They may be in 8th grade and reading at the 3rd grade level, or they may be in the 10th grade and reading at the 7th grade level. Here in Los Angeles, I have encountered both of these situations.

So get them lower level material. Don’t be afraid of offending them. If you were learning to swim, how would you feel if you were put in water that was way over your head? You’d feel angry and offended, as many students now do. If you give students the proper level reading material, no matter how low, they will respect you for it.

Of course, the rigor with which students pursue a word depends upon the importance of the material. If it is a word that they may see every day in their jobs, and they have never gotten that word completely defined, they’d be fools not to look it up in the dictionary or somehow get it defined. They’d better determine just what it is and what it isn’t.

If it’s a word that they are reading in a novel, they may, at times, be justified in not stopping to consult a dictionary. They are reading for entertainment rather than to apply on the job. But if they want to get the author’s full meaning, then they shouldn’t skip over words they don’t understand. They should open the dictionary. They shouldn’t spend too much time reading about the author’s life or reading literary criticism of the author. They should open the dictionary.

It is not easy to do. I will be the first to admit that. In fact, it’s extremely difficult. I hate stopping what I am reading in order to get a word defined. However, I have trained myself over the years to do it. Students can, too.
I have observed many different English classes over the years. Probably over sixty. Several of the teachers emphasized the importance of vocabulary. However, only one of them (besides me) emphasized the importance of interrupting your reading to define a word you don’t recognize.

Many of us were often trained in childhood to be just “word callers” rather than readers. We were taught by phonics (word sounds) without putting equal emphasis on semantics (word meanings).

We were taught (and students are still taught) to try to figure out the meaning of words from the surrounding words (context). However, recent research (by Phillip Gough, U. of Texas, Austin) showed that students trying to guess the meaning of a word from the context were right less than 1 in 10 times. Context, according to Gough, is a “false friend.”
Do yourselves a big favor and get words defined (if you don’t already), and then make sure students know the meanings of words also. Every classroom could have a class set of dictionaries, and they could be on the students’ desks when they are reading.

The solution to literacy is not quick-fix gimmicks: not fast talking seminar leaders, not “advanced speed reading,” not “new improved note taking skills,” not “improved study guides.”

Speed and organization can come when the student understands all the words. Speed and organization can never be a substitute for knowing the words. Take the cold bath.

Know words, know subjects, raise literacy.

Part 5 of a series on raising literacy by William Earth. Part 1 of a series on raising literacy by William Earth. He holds a master’s degree in Industrial Psychology/Ergonomics and has studied education for over 15 years. He can be reached via his internet site: