July 22, 2024

Word of the Day (2002)

“Word-of-the-day,” a simple idea with  multiple meanings

A literate citizen has command of a large and expressive vocabulary. Schools “do vocabulary” presumably in the hopes of creating thoughtful thinkers and articulate communicators.

Vocabulary is developed by immersion in a social culture rich in stories, songs and other people to converse with. Despite the intuitive and scientific evidence of this truth, schools still insist on drilling new words into kids.

I’m always amazed by the emphasis placed on vocabulary at Back-to-School Night. My kids’ teachers tell us how many words the kids need to memorize each week and how many points they will “earn” for this lower-order thinking skill. I once asked a middle school language arts teacher if the vocabulary words assigned came from the context of what the kids are reading or studying. She looked quizzically at me and replied, “No. No context.” I then asked about the origin of these mysterious word lists and she said, “another teacher gives them to me.”

While I was alarmed by the lack of consideration given to context and meaning, two pillars of vocabulary development, my experience at the high school was even more horrific. The 10th grade English teacher explained the school had just instituted a new “Word of the Day” program.

“Each day the school puts a word in our mailbox or announces it over the P.A. system and every teacher is expected to use it during their lesson. For example, today’s word was buoyancy, so I wrote the following sentence on the blackboard. French is not a very buoyant language.”

What the heck does that mean? Could it be true? If buoyancy could be applied to languages, wouldn’t French be among the most likely to float off the tongue?

It occurred to me that if the innovative “Word of the Day” program had a 100 percent success rate, kids would learn 180 new words annually. I believe that gerbils are capable of learning more words per year. By the age of six kids have a vocabulary of about 10,000 words. Their vocabulary then experiences a median growth rate of approximately 3,500 words per year for the next 10 years. Vocabulary remains easy to teach and difficult to learn by being taught.

Vocabulary may be used to illuminate, enhance, describe or even obfuscate. Last week, my daughter mentioned that her eighth grade social studies teacher is now the advisor of the “Word of the Day Club.” Apparently, the franchise is taking off! I visualized kids staying after school to memorize new words and fundraising for field trips to the local library, but I was mistaken.

The “(Good) Word of the Day Club” is a bible study club held on the grounds of the public school. When I expressed outrage that the school was endorsing such patently unconstitutional activities, my daughter explained that her teacher was an “unofficial” advisor. What an imaginative play-on-words. The school must have thought that this subterfuge (an excellent vocabulary word) would go unnoticed by parents who actually value the separation of church and state.

I then shared some new vocabulary words with my daughter including: coercion, exploitation, duplicity, unethical, proselytizing and evangelism. She naively assured me that this was a voluntary club. An abuse of power by such an authority will compel some children to participate in an inappropriate activity.

I certainly remember joining community service clubs supervised by my math teacher because my geometry grade needed a little “lift.” Educators are entrusted with a great deal of power and responsibility. They must not abuse that power.

What exactly is a voluntary club with an unofficial advisor? Would the school provide my child with classroom space and teacher supervision to read the Koran? Can she start an unofficial marching band or a competitor to the school newspaper? How about a club for Satan worshippers? They could call it “Hot Shots.”

If the school is not breaking the letter of the law, the propriety of their actions must surely be questioned. Perhaps we should get back to basics. If the Constitution was read and debated in the “unofficial” preacher’s social studies class, fewer kids might fall for the treachery of a good word.

Originally published in the April 2002 issue of District Administration Magazine