In a world increasingly dominated by technological shorthand, it's hard to imagine why students would need to know the meaning of an unwieldy word like "perspicacity." Yet in the information age, a good vocabulary is more important than ever. Navigating new platforms for communication requires savvy and discernment -- even, some might say, a bit of perspicacity -- but it also demands a deep understanding of word meanings and their context.
On a fundamental level, vocabulary is the key that unlocks reading comprehension, whether on a "printed page or a computer screen." Such is the finding of a new government report detailing 2009 and 2011 student vocabulary performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. NAEP vocabulary results revealed "a consistent relationship between performance on vocabulary and performance on reading comprehension." Thus, high achievers on NAEP vocabulary led on reading comprehension, while poor performers in vocabulary struggled with reading.
In a press release accompanying the test results, David Driscoll, chair of the National Assessment Governing Board (the group that oversees NAEP), noted, "Without a strong vocabulary, any child's ability to read and to learn suffers dramatically." The good news is that our weakest eighth graders -- those scoring at the 10th percentile -- made small improvements in vocabulary achievement between 2009 and 2011. But high achievers' scores declined in both fourth and eighth grades -- the two grade levels evaluated nationwide. So there is work still to do.
What can a child do to acquire a robust vocabulary? Read for fun. Reading and vocabulary form a circular relationship, so spending time on one positively influences the other. Pleasure reading not only influences vocabulary acquisition, it also affects school achievement. A 2010 study on children's media habits from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that "heavy readers" (kids who read one or more hours per day) "are substantially more likely to say they earn high grades than those who are light readers."
Unfortunately, books don't command much of children's leisure time today. Although school-age children spend more than seven hours daily with recreational media, only 38 minutes of this time is spent with print media, Kaiser's data show. Digital kids aren't compensating for time lost to print with online articles: They devote just two minutes daily to reading news or magazines online.
Surely we can leverage technology to pique kids' interest in reading. A recent survey by Scholastic found that 57 percent of 9- to 17-year-olds were eager to read an e-book.
The key for parents and educators is to push real reading, whether in an electronic or physical book format. The 25 percent of kids in Scholastic's survey who thought texting was reading might not rejoice at putting down that cellphone and diving into literature. But their minds will be the better for it.
For their part, schools "need to go beyond teaching word definitions," said Brent Houston, an Oklahoma middle school principal and member of NAGB, at a webinar announcing the vocabulary results. Houston said he wants to "spend even more time teaching contextual clues, multiple meanings, antonyms, and synonyms."
It may seem antiquated, but studying word etymology and Latin roots also is beneficial. As advocates of Latin instruction point out, much of the English language is derived from Latin. More schools are taking note: in 2012 some 136,000 students took the National Latin Exam, up from fewer than 80,000 in 1992.
Such students, along with avid readers everywhere, understand modern reality: Ours is a world saturated with words and information. Far from being an anachronism, a good vocabulary helps us make sense of it.
Kristen Blair is a North Carolina Education Alliance fellow.