One day, back in high school, my brother said, “At last! Finally they are teaching me what I want to know!”
He was misreading the title of his newly assigned vocabulary book, reading World for Word.
No, our school did not assign World Power Made Easy, no matter how much the more megalomaniacal among us might have wished it.
Obviously, you can study vocabulary as a set-apart subject. Many high schoolers find this a fairly easy way to boost standardized test scores, and focused study on any topic is a good way to improve.
But another way to boost vocabulary is simply through reading aloud. The human brain is amazing at making connections, and if you’ve grown up hearing a range of words, such as genesis, genetics, and genealogy, you shouldn’t have much trouble when reading a word like congenital.
Although the tincture of time is overall the best method, here’s a few tips to maximize that read-aloud time for good vocabulary development.
When you’re reading aloud, sometimes you come across a word that isn’t the most familiar. In that case, if you roughly know the definition, simply read through it. For example, in Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze, a wonderful book about a young man in China during the tumultuous early years of the 20th Century, includes the sentence, “Not until he reached Chair-Makers’ Way was he able to erase the memory of the afternoon’s altercation from his mind.” If you knew the definition of altercation already, you could smoothly include altercation as you read: “the memory of the afternoon’s altercation, or noisy disagreement or fight, from his mind.”
This can, of course, be overdone. I once heard of an arrogant lawyer who said, “I try not to be condescending, which means patronizing.” But short of that — which was addressed to an adult potential client, no less! — you’re probably good.
But what if you don’t know the definition? You have a few options.
You can keep going, and assume that the context is sufficient enough to make sense of the few unknown words. This is usually the method I take, because a few stray words here and there are not worth breaking the flow of the story.
You can also make a prediction. Young Fu includes this sentence: “With a gaminish gesture of derision toward the river, he turned his back and stepped forward.”
I didn’t know the meaning of gamin, but I hazarded, “It sounds like a gamin is something like a street urchin, so he made a rude gesture, like a street urchin, toward the river to show that he wasn’t scared of it, even if it did flood suddenly.”
And gamin does, indeed, mean street urchin. But if I had guessed peasant (in the book, the lower-class laborers), that would have been fine.
Of course, you can also look up words. With a dictionary app, you can have access to words with the touch of a finger.
Parents usually have a larger vocabulary than their children, with a better understanding of pronunciation — sometimes hard-earned through embarrassing situations.
I still remember the first time I learned that Chopin was not pronounced choppin’, and the time I learned that rendezvous was pronounced RON-day-vou.
English has so many words that don’t make a lot of sense: tongue, yacht, fuchsia, rhythm, pharaoh. When reading aloud, you can point to a word like this, and say, “Look at how this is spelled! You wouldn’t expect that, would you?”
And then move on. You’ve given your children a heads-up, and their brain has a little extra notice: this is an unusual word!
And When You Make a Mistake
Here’s the reality, though. The current edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, an amazing resource that is considered the gold standard of dictionaries, contains 171,476 words in current use, plus 47,156 obsolete words.
You aren’t going to learn them all.
That’s fine! There’s always more to learn!
So if you don’t feel confident — get started anyway!
I was in college before I learned that Keats and Yeats don’t rhyme. (What?! They both write in English!)
And I was married with children, talking about Seamus Heaney, whose work I admired. I was pronouncing it See-a-muss (because that’s what it looks like!), and a friend said, “Umm . . . it’s SHAME-us.”
Who knew the Irish were so tricky? (Except I probably should have expected it, based on Yeats’s name!)
But as one of my friends, a college professor, said to me, “it happens to everyone. I try to look up pronunciations, but sometimes I assume wrongly that I don’t need to. Like when I taught Ovid for a week and pronounced the first syllable like the first syllable of Othello [instead of the proper Ah-vid]. Speaking of Shakespeare, this past semester I mispronounced the name Hecate when my class discussed his brief appearance in Macbeth. Then a Classics major commented on the character and used the right pronunciation [he-CAH-tay], as was immediately apparent to everyone, since all the students then used her pronunciation. Oops! Always more to learn. . . .”
That’s exciting! Go read a book aloud!