E.D. Hirsch is half right about vocabulary building

E.D. Hirsch Jr. recently wrote in the New York Times that the decline in American students’ vocabulary scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress signals a decline in equality for students―without wide general knowledge and vocabulary, he claims, students cannot go on to learn the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects that they will need to compete in the modern workforce. Hirsch insists that vocabulary is not learned from vocabulary lists but rather, is best learned after students have acquired enough background to absorb the vocabulary in context.

I do agree with Hirsch that all learning is better (and more fun) in context, but I  do not agree with his assertion that students don’t learn new words by studying vocabulary lists. Instead, I believe that American students should learn the 70% of English words that have Greek and Latin roots and prefixes by studying, at the very least, the roots and prefixes that unlock hundreds and thousands of words.

Take, for example, the Latin root “VERT, VERS,” which means “to turn.” Learning this word will provide an inquisitive student with clues about what an “aversion” is [“AB” means to turn away, so an aversion means “a turning away (a great distaste).” This bright student might extend the root to understand “convert” [CON means “together,” so to convert is to turn together to the same belief.] I love this stuff! I bless my sainted high school Latin teacher, Miss Gilmore, who drilled us in roots and prefixes. She instilled a love of language so deep and broad that to this day, I can hardly tear myself away to learn the STEM disciplines that I need.

But I digress. Back to our student, now armed with keys to expand his or her vocabulary, which now will be the foundation of a life-long vocabulary building in the broader context that Hirsch so correctly touts.

Want to learn more Latin and Greek roots and prefixes? Work your way through The Least You Should Know About Vocabulary Building. It’s expensive (about $33 from Amazon), but NOT having a large and flexible vocabulary would be much more expensive.

My thanks to Liz Willis, my faithful editor, for sending me Hirsch’s article.


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