Last month I attended a course on developing students’ literacy and comprehension skills. On the course, I learned a startling statistic; in order to maintain grade level, a student needs to add 3,000 new words to his or her vocabulary every year. That works out to 15 new words for every school day.
Now, if you’re a kid that lives in a family where you regularly engage in meaningful conversation with adults, and if you read at least 20 minutes every day from a “just right” book (a text that has just enough unfamiliar words in it that you learn something from it, but not so many that it is too hard to decode and comprehend), and if you don’t have any learning disabilities to throw up extra challenges in your path, then you’ll pick up those 3,000 words without too much drama.
But, to quote Firefly, (got to get my spec fic references in somewhere), I’m smelling a lot of ‘if’ coming off this plan. And here’s another one. If, on the other hand, the responsibility of increasing a child’s vocabulary falls mainly or solely on the school, then teachers – and aides, like me – have their work cut out for them.
With that concerning thought in mind, I came home from the course, set eyes on my two youngest offspring, clapped my hands together and said, “Right! You two need to learn fifteen new words before dinner.”
The game was simple; I said a word, and if they didn’t know what it meant, gave them a sentence with the word used in context to see if they could guess its meaning. We started with “anxious”, then did “gargantuan”.
“What about ‘excrement’?” I asked. “Do you know what that means?”
Two little heads shook “no”.
“Well, here’s a sentence. ‘Oh no, I’ve just stood in dog excrement, and it’s all over my shoe!’”
Or faeces, or manure, or dung, or…
Two little faces lit up. “Oh, I get it!” said eight-year-old Zoe. “It means ‘poo’!”
Of all the words we discussed that night, ‘excrement’ seems to have been the only one that stuck. There were just so many opportunities to use it in everyday conversation, opportunities that had hitherto been neglected. When Zoe rushed past me that night on the way to the bathroom, her gait awkward, she said, “I’m anxious to excrete!” Cursing was suddenly permitted; whenever something went wrong, somebody would exclaim, “Oh, excrement!” And the girls took great delight in informing on me to their father, saying, “Someone beeped their horn at Mum when we were in the car, and she called him an excrement-head.”
They even got to use it at school, when ten-year-old Alia was attending a sustainability incursion focusing on worm farms. “The lady asked if we knew what happened to all the stuff the worms eat, and I said they turned it into excrement, but I wasn’t sure if she would know what excrement was.”
“I’m pretty sure she would have known what excrement is,” I said, “especially if she was a biologist.”
“Yes,” said Zoe, “biologists know all about poop.”
Later, Zoe reflected on the lesson. “I thought when I first heard the word that it was going to have a fancy meaning and only fancy people would use it. But it turned out to mean something really ordinary.”
But isn’t that often the way with fancy words?