It’s never really been clear to me how I ended up in special education classes my freshman year of high school. But there I was: Algebra for the slow learners (confession: I could barely keep up with them).
But what’s really amazing to me that I was also in Reading for Dumb Kids. Of course they didn’t call it this. I forget what they called it, but everyone knew that smart kids just had English. That was a real class. I had a class that didn’t count as a real class.
I also read two or three books a day. They weren’t at grade level, though. I think it’s Aspergers, but I’m not sure. I did not read at grade level probably until college.
Yet I have a very good vocabulary. I say this not having a very good measuring stick. I scored in the bottom 20% for the GRE. (Yet I still got into graduate school for English, proving that either the tests are stupid or the graduate schools are stupid. Or both.)
Anyway, I am proof that a good vocabulary does not come from reading difficult books. Because I simply do not read difficult books. I read Love in the Time of Cholera but it nearly killed me and I still have no idea what the book is about.
I read Dead Souls. I think I might have skimmed. Because I couldn’t really tell you anything about the book that I couldn’t glean from a book review of the book.
So now, for the most part, I only read book reviews.
1. Teach kids to care about words.
You don’t need to read great books to have a great vocabulary. But you do need to care about words. I love letters. I love words. I ran for class president because I liked writing the slogans for my posters.
I entered an art contest because I wanted to write a poem about a clown in the shape of a clown. When I got last place (only generations before Gen Y faced child art contests that had a last place) I thought to myself that the person didn’t read the poem. I told myself it was a first-place poem and art with words is so nice.
The thing is that I’m not sure you can teach a kid to care about words. Do you know what my favorite part of seventh grade was? Diagramming a sentence. I was blown away at how organized language is. So forget teaching a kid to care about words. You have to engage a kid with something the kid already cares about. Just like most education.
2. Play with words.
My family is full of outstanding Scrabble players. The kind that get 40 points from a two-letter word. In fact, I used to spend hours just reading the Scrabble dictionary and memorizing two-letter words.
But my brother grew up in the same house I did and he hates Scrabble. So again, it looks like the urge to play with words is another thing you are just born having, not teachable probably.
Or maybe it’s that you have to find the right way to play with words. A study from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden says, “Young people who play a lot of interactive English computer games gain an advantage in terms of their English vocabulary compared with those who do not play or only play a little.”
This study surprises no one who actually plays video games. There’s a discussion on Reddit about the research and one person wrote, “I already suspected this. After all, I didn’t learn the word zealot in church.”
It’s word based, fill-in-the-blank, and the vocabulary is so advanced that there is a specific rule in the game that if you don’t know what a card means, you have to ask for a definition and then put the card in the discard pile and draw again.
My kids have learned things like object permanence and jazz hands. But what they’re really learning is that words are fun.
3. Spend time with people who
love language are rich.
My mom used to pay us five cents for a four-syllable word. (Ironic since she’d beat us in Scrabble with her arsenal of one-syllable words.) But it is so ingrained in our heads that even now, in middle age, we scream out “Five cents!” when a sibling uses a four-syllable word.
I was going to tell you that my mom was on Jeopardy and my dad graduated from Harvard, but you know what? I don’t believe they made me love language. I think I just found a way to connect with words.
And research shows I’m not alone.
If you have a big vocabulary you probably don’t even worry about the vocabulary your kids have. Actually, even if you don’t have a big vocabulary, if you have a big bank account, your kids will have a big vocabulary.
A study at Stanford found that there’s a direct correlation between socioeconomic status and vocabulary of kids as young as infants.
This gap comes from how kids hear more words if they are spending more time with rich people than poor people. It makes sense. A rich mom is home all day, attending to the baby’s needs and talking to it. A poor mom is taking care of too many people, worrying about rent and food and probably working two jobs. Also, a big factor of vocabulary is how much time the kid is around the father, and most impoverished kids do not live with their father.
So the truth about a big vocabulary is that if you grow up with parents who are educated you will have a big vocabulary. Because of the way parents and kids interact. A caring, focused parent chatters away to the baby all day long. (I was stunned to discover that researchers group nannies, daycare providers, and low-income mothers as a single demographic when they study the root cause of the vocabulary gap.)
This research shows me kids don’t learn vocabulary in school. Not that I didn’t already know that. I did nothing in my Reading for Dumb Kids class except that when I used the words on our vocabulary tests in real classes the teacher would tell me to use language in my writing that is more true to me.
Here’s how your kid can build a vocabulary that is true to him or her:
1. If you want your kids to have a good vocabulary, have a smart, primary caregiver.
2. If you are rich and educated, you don’t have to worry about your kids building a vocabulary.
3. If you are not rich or not educated then you should try things like video games. Researchers found that kids who play video games have bigger vocabularies than kids who don’t.