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Posted: December 4, 2012 5:11 p.m.

Expanding our youth’s vocabulary

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, embankment 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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