The Incredible Shrinking Vocabularies of Today’s Students

How bad is the state of vocabulary in today’s generation? In this guest post, Jeanne Clements–who, herself earned a perfect verbal SAT score–explains that it’s pretty bad. Clement is an educator and the creator of an interactive vocabulary learning system, Verbal Education.

Recently a fellow teacher told me about a high school senior who wrote in a college application essay that she did not “want to be taken for granite,” meaning, of course, she did not “want to be taken for granted.” The author of this embarrassing blunder carried a 4.0 GPA, was enrolled in honors English, and attended a highly rated northeast school.
How could this happen?

It happened because she never saw these words in print because she does not read; she hears. And even then, she does not listen. She acquired the incorrect phrase the way she learned the majority of her language – from broadcast media. The result is that this student, like most of her peers, does not have a traditional print vocabulary, but an electronic one.

Electronic vocabularies are built by television, radio, and the internet sending out waves of words that crash over the auditory systems of modern teens. Most words dissipate within seconds while only a few, like errant splashes of water, drip into the memories of America’s students. But the words arrive damaged or warped. The endings are truncated, syllables are lost, letters are changed, and meanings are mutated. The process of assimilating vocabulary this way is tantamount to listening to a cellphone call that has lost tower strength and keeps cutting in and out. Only bits and pieces of the message get through and understanding is compromised. This is the current educational process of vocabulary acquisition.

For the human brain to properly process a word, it has to be exposed to it in auditory AND written modality. Mistakes happen when we eliminate the visual word in print, like the student who thought he would be studying the “Decoration of Independence,” or the child who pledged allegiance to a flag for “wichit” stands, a “wichit” being something that makes the flag stand up straight. Less reading also means assimilation of fewer words, as evidenced when I witnessed a drop-dead gorgeous, blonde, teenage Ford model taking acting lessons in New York being told by her director that she has to be more ebullient in her opening lines. She looked at him in utter confusion. Someone from the class finally told her the meaning. She probably heard this word but never listened to it, never absorbed it and almost certainly never saw it in print. These kids acquired selective declarative knowledge through acoustic assimilation which is highly unreliable.

The deficient vocabularies carry over to adulthood. A young bachelor on the television show Millionaire Matchmaker, in a scenario similar to the decades-old Dating Game, asked a prospective date, “I don’t like frivolous things, so what kind of gift would you buy me?” The respondent replied, “What’s frivolous?” Not an auspicious (he probably doesn’t know that word either) beginning for a relationship.

Electronic vocabularies dominating the minds of our country’s student population contain fewer words and many incorrect ones. This inferior language skill affects both the writing and reading abilities of its victims. An underdeveloped vocabulary makes it difficult for a person to clearly communicate a verbal or written message and, more importantly, makes it impossible for kids to understand complex text, which is another way of saying that they can’t read.

While American students are already suffering the effects of this impediment when taking high stakes tests like the SAT and ACT, the pain will become even more acute next year when children in 46 states in all grades begin taking the new, more difficult, standardized annual tests.

Educators must address this problem and change the current instructional paradigm but many don’t recognize the true causes of this issue and have received no direction in how to solve it. College preparation programs for teachers do not include courses on how to teach vocabulary, grammar or listening skills. Without training, how can they be expected to fix the problem? Proactive parents could help if they knew what to do but they are generally less equipped than teachers are. Educators have largely ignored the wealth of information now available from brain-based research on how the human memory absorbs declarative knowledge, the category that contains vocabulary. The learning power of mnemonics and activating schema, the two most effective memory devices, have not been cultivated at all in our classrooms.

This is no less than a crisis. American education is in danger of getting even worse and there are no special forces to swoop in to rescue it. Colleges, educational companies, and professional development providers have to adjust what they are doing to address the changing needs of today’s students. It’s time to save the English language and, along with it, future generations of students.

Jeanne Clements is founder and creator of United States patented, breakthrough learning vocabulary system and interactive game, Verbal Education, which is the only game to effectively help individuals commit SAT and ACT vocabulary words to memory in a speedy and interactive way. While teaching SAT prep classes, Clements realized the need for better vocabulary testing methods. Clements’ created and perfected the Verbal Education system over a five year period spent identifying the 400 most frequently used SAT and ACT testing words and then attaching mnemonics to each word in order to easily recall definitions. Currently, Clements directs the formation of the first Association of Language Arts Teachers of America, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the strength, beauty and power of the English language and Language Arts education.

Whatcha think?