Wednesday, June 10, 2015

One Read Aloud and Ramblings on Words

The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus by Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet is a wonderful read aloud book.  A biography that includes many historical facts (including a timeline!) this picture book also encourages a love of language and words. When a parent (rather than a teacher or librarian) reads a book to a child the child has to opportunity to explore the illustration in detail. This is a picture book in which the pictures are as informative as the story.

"The limits of my language means the limits of my world." said Ludwig Wittgenstein.  A thesaurus expands the limits of language for many a writer. According to research, money (or lack of)  appears to limit language. A 2003 study found "that on average children from family on welfare heard about 616 words per hour, while those from working class families hears around 1,250 words per hour, and those from professional families heard roughly 2,153 words per hour." The researchers cautioned that the findings should not be extrapolated to people and circumstances not included in the study but the "30 million word gap" has become a commonly quoted statistic. 

This early vocabulary gap was shown to influence school achievement. Of course economics and class are not the only influences on vocabulary.  Learning differences and trauma also may impact a child's vocabulary.

So the question becomes: how can we improve vocabulary? Making it another subject in school or handing a child a thesaurus doesn't do much to close the gap. Using a thesaurus is a good example of why understanding language requires more than words. Yes, I can look up a word and see a list of synonyms but there is another step in selecting the the best word for my purpose. How does a person understand the subtle differences between loneliness, solitude, and isolation?  Being surrounded by people who use a rich vocabulary and reading a plethora of books seems to be the best way to expand a child's vocabulary.  I am not sure that I agree with Madeleine L'Engle  that we think because we have words; but I do agree with her statement that "the more words we have, the better able we are to think conceptually."  

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