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Raising Literacy Part 3
Word Grounding

by Bill Lauritzen

Words are a fundamental of our language and knowledge.

When a child sees the word “tree,” most often that word is linked, at some level, to a picture in his memory of that barky, growing, leafy, branching thing with a trunk. The word “motion” is linked to a change in position of anything throughout the vast universe surrounding us. “Water” is linked to that slippery, fluid stuff that he drinks and in which he bathes.

I call this “word grounding.” The word is linked, latched, or anchored to the dynamic, real world.

In our schools, thanks probably to political pressure to get kids to read, students become “word callers” rather than readers. They look like they are reading even though they often don’t understand what they are reading. This is because, in a person’s mind, words can be unlinked from the things and actions they stand for.

The solution is to do what I call, “Link the Ink” and “Ground the Sound.” When someone reads a word, in ink, they should make sure that is somehow linked to things or motions in the real world. When they hear the sound of a word, they should make sure they ground it or anchor it in the dynamic real world.

Any word can be linked to the dynamic reality of sense experience. The word “honesty” can be linked to the actions of a person who is honest.
Sometimes, it may take a series of steps to link a word to reality. For example, the word “noun” can be linked to the word “tree,” which can be linked to that barky, growing, leafy, branching thing. The word “to” can be linked to the two words on either side of it (as in “He walked to school.”), which can be linked to something real.

If a word can’t be linked back in steps, such as the word “heaven,” I would suggest that it probably doesn’t exist. Or, perhaps we could say that it exists only in a person’s mind as a belief. (So “heaven” can be linked only to a person’s mind.)

The mistake that is often made in schools is to link the word to a series of words, as in memorization. The word “gravity” is memorized for a test as “the force that causes objects to move or tend to move towards each other.” Students pass the test and get an A or a B and still have not linked “gravity” to actions and things of the real world.

The famous American educator, John Dewey, observed this phenomenon and strongly objected to it. Brazilian educator Paulo Freire derogatorily called it “banking education.” Probably every real educator has fought this ever since the Homo genus first evolved speech.

Un-anchored knowledge becomes what I call “floating knowledge.” It floats in the head as a mesh or matrix. When I graduated from college, I had plenty of floating words, phrases, and sentences in my head. It took me years to ground them to the ever-changing world.

Some people never get their words grounded. We often describe them as, “they don’t know what they are talking about,” “they are full of hot air,” “they don’t know what they are doing.” My theory is that these people tend to be naive or gullible, believing everything they see and hear on TV. They would often seem artificial, false, foolish, silly, or cartoonish. They may be a walking encyclopedia but not at all practical. They may become UFO cult members or believe in alien abductions. They may be hired, but because their words are not linked to reality, they often can’t take any action. In other words, they can’t do the job and this may lead to disaster.

On the other hand, I think a person whose words are well-grounded can be described as, “they know what they are talking about,” “they tell it like it is,” “they know what they are doing.” They seem realistic, down-to-earth, factual, well-balanced, hard-boiled, sober, and practical. They get the job done.

We are taught, “In the beginning was the word...”. More likely, in the beginning was the thing. Later, came the word which linked to that thing, and still later, unfortunately, came the unlinking or un-grounding of the word. Finally, came the worshipping of words and books, instead of the things that words and books stood for.

A misunderstood word is a word that is not-linked (floating) or mis-linked. For example, some people mis-link the word “noun” to a real person, place or thing instead of to a word. I have often gone into a classroom and raised a pencil and asked, “Is this a noun?” The class always has responded overwhelmingly “yes”. However, a noun is a word and it sometimes takes me awhile to communicate this to the class. I write “pencil” on the blackboard and hold the pencil in my hand and go back and forth, pointing to each one in turn, going over the definition of noun, until they know that the word on the blackboard is a noun and the thing in my hand is not. Then I do the same with “eraser,” “pen,” and “desk.” Then I do verbs such as, “walk,” “hop,” and “throw.”

If someone thought a horse were a man, we would think that person crazy. What about someone who thinks a noun is a thing? Isn’t that person also crazy?

Or the person could link a word to the wrong definition. Thus a king (sovereign) becomes a coin (sovereign). A state (nation) becomes muddled in one’s head with a state (section of the United States). Whenever someone guesses wrong at the meaning of a word while reading (most of the time according to my experience), they have mis-linked that word.

So, link the ink. Ground the sound. Know what you’re talking about.

Part 3 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.