Ex­pand­ing our youth’s vo­cab­u­lary

The Covington News - - OPINION -

My grand­daugh­ters who at­tend school in New­ton County have weekly vo­cab­u­lary tests. To para­phrase Martha Ste­wart, that’s a good thing. The more words a reader un­der­stands, the bet­ter reader a per­son is. And read­ing is the bot­tom line (no of­fense to math ma­jors).

If a stu­dent can com­pre­hend what he is read­ing and com­pletes his read­ing as­sign­ments, he should do well in his­tory, lit­er­a­ture and sci­ence classes as well as any other classes which re­quire read­ing and un­der­stand­ing se­lected pas­sages.

And hav­ing a knowl­edge of the vo­cab­u­lary ex­pected on the stu­dent’s grade level is cru­cial to com­pre­hen­sion.

Ac­com­plished read­ers can usu­ally use con­text clues to fig­ure out what a word means. In read­ing, guess­ing at the mean­ing of the word is al­lowed.

If you are watch­ing a TV show and random words are bleeped out (not just the ones that should be bleeped), you would be an­gry with the TV sta­tion and prob­a­bly call to com­plain I would tell my stu­dents. So, why then, I would ask, is it ac­cept­able to read a pas­sage and skip ev­ery fifth word be­cause you do not know the mean­ing of the word.

In other words, make an at­tempt to fig­ure out what the word means from the con­text of the sen­tence.

One trans­la­tion of “Be­owulf” in a Brit Lit text had Gren­del cross­ing a tes­sel­lated floor. Now that sen­tence alone would not give you the mean­ing of tes­sel­lated. But if the trans­la­tion stated that Gren­del walked across a floor tes­sel­lated in a pat­tern of paving stones, you would have a pretty good idea that the word meant a re­peated pat­tern that com­pletely cov­ers a space.

If that con­text clue did not do it for you, there is al­ways the dic­tionary or, so much quicker to­day, the In­ter­net. If you have to look up a word, chances are you will re­mem­ber its mean­ing.

(I al­ways have to look up ef­fect and af­fect.)

Some­times con­text clues will throw you. In a vo­cab­u­lary les­son I taught a long time ago, the word was levee. A levee is a dike, em- bank­ment or flood­bank. One of my stu­dents did not be­lieve the def­i­ni­tion.

Mrs. Travis, says he, I thought a levee was a gas sta­tion. A gas sta­tion I ask. Yes he said and quoted th­ese lyrics from “Amer­i­can Pie,” “I drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry.”

When my chil­dren were in high school, the Lan­guage Arts De­part­ment used a vo­cab­u­lary se­ries for fresh­man and sopho­more English called “Wordly Wise.” It was fairly straight for­ward. Each week had a list of vo­cab­u­lary words and mean­ings and then sen­tences where the stu­dent was re­quired to in­sert the ap­pro­pri­ate word.

Even to­day, I dare not say how many years later, when some words come up in the con­ver­sa­tion, my chil­dren chirp that’s a “Wordly Wise” word.

My older daugh­ter’s fa­vorite is ad­dled. Tell her you did not do some­thing cor­rectly or for­got some­thing be­cause you were ad­dled and she will just giggle.

Other words that I re­mem­ber from teach­ing the vo­cab­u­lary se­ries for more than five years make me won­der how the writ­ers chose the words to be in­cluded in the lessons. “Scut­tle” is one. It is a cu­ri­ous word. It has so many mean­ings and can be both an ad­jec­tive and a verb. It can mean the de­lib­er­ate sink­ing of a ship or to move furtively and hur­riedly across a space (both verbs). Or a con­tainer for coal or hot water (as in shav­ing scut­tle) or a bulk­head in a ve­hi­cle be­tween the en­gine and driver (all nouns). How can one word that you prob­a­bly have not used in con­ver­sa­tion for more than five years have so many mean­ings?

As a teacher you could count on cer­tain things or words would make the stu­dents giggle or laugh be­cause they thought the ref­er­ence had some sex­ual mean­ing when it really didn’t. One “Wordly Wise” word that made them giggle was “orgy.” It only means un­re­strained in­dul­gence and one could have an orgy of food or movies.

And tell me, Bri­tish Lit teach­ers of to­day, do stu­dents still tit­ter when Lady Macbeth tells Macbeth, “But screw your courage to the stick­ing-place, And we’ll not fail.” Why do they laugh at that and then to­tally miss it when Shake­speare ac­tu­ally does make a naughty ref­er­ence?

Paula Travis is a re­tired teacher from the New­ton County School Sys­tem. She can be reached at ptravis@ cov­news.com.

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