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. Its 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 thats 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. Dont 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? Youd 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, theyd be fools not to look it
up in the dictionary or somehow get it defined. Theyd better
determine just what it is and what it isnt.
If its 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 authors full meaning,
then they shouldnt skip over words they dont understand.
They should open the dictionary. They shouldnt spend too
much time reading about the authors 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,
its 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 dont 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
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 dont
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
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 masters degree in Industrial Psychology/Ergonomics and
has studied education for over 15 years. He can be reached via
his internet site: Earth360.com