Most of the rants you will encounter about The Kids These Days focus on their supposed sense of entitlement, their sensitivity, or their shortening attention spans. Over the past five to eight years I've noticed consistently something much more worrisome.

Having taught an Intro to American Government course at least three times per academic year, and sometimes four, for some time now I know which parts of the course students will get easily, which ones will take a little more effort, and where some of them will fall off the bandwagon. Increasingly I've come to realize from blank stares that there is a basic problem in some cases with understanding the language I use in class. I don't mean that I have a dense accent or that I mumble; I mean over time I've realized that entire classes of students will be ignorant of the definitions of fairly basic terms. For example, I have had entire classes – and it's not just that they don't want to speak in class, since I call on them and try to make them come up with an answer – unable to define the following:

– Deference
– Meritocracy
– Contentious
– Bicameral
– Substantive
– Precipitate (as in to cause an event)

Of those, only bicameral could be considered a Term of Art unique to the subject. The others are just..words. They're words that I use without conscious thought and the idea of any adult high school graduate being unable to make sense of them doesn't occur to me. And without getting into specifics, this is merely a sample of words I have to stop and define routinely and for which entire classes are unable to divine the meaning. On an individual basis I get asked to define words on an exam or in a lecture all the time, some of which…I mean, if a student does not know I'm glad that he or she asks to have it defined, but…I've had to stifle the "Are you serious?" reaction a handful of times. You would too, trust me.

The issue is, I have no desire to talk down to college students, treat them like kids, or dumb things down to reflect lowered expectations. So part of the problem might be that I simply talk to them like adults who are in college – at a good school; not Harvard, but certainly no worse than Good – and that assumes that they came to college with a basic level of knowledge from high school. Given what goes on in high schools, that may be a flawed assumption. On the other hand, part of me looks at that list and thinks, c'mon…

So add to the litany of problems with The Kids a shrinking vocabulary. Despite the anecdotal nature of this post, the data reinforce my conclusion – vocabularies are getting worse with time. It may not be rocket science; students' attention spans shrink, the amount that they read decreases (unless you count Snapchat, YouTube videos, and memes), and they simply aren't exposed to many attempts to communicate with them on an adult level in writing. And that's where you learn words. You learn them by reading, and reading things that aren't crap. We simply don't do that much anymore as a society. It shows.

58 thoughts on “CAN'T FIND THE WORDS TO SAY”

  • Bitter Scribe says:

    I remember once, as a community newspaper editor, having to explain to a recent journalism school grad that "Islamic" and "Muslim" mean the same thing.

  • Anonymous Prof says:

    I'm also a professor, and I've noticed the exact same thing at the last two schools I've worked at. It's hard to talk to the students, because they just don't have the vocabulary. As you described, I find over and over again that I have to define words that seem like they ought to be things a college student would know. Like the time a nutrition major asked me what "sterile" meant, or a biology major didn't know what a "vacuum" was.

  • A pet peeve of mine is grammatical errors that get used, uncorrected, so often that now they are starting to show up in the dictionaries and whatnot as /alternative/ or /acceptable/ meanings/styles/usages. But hey. What can ya do, huh? I'm taking some Master's courses in software engineering and a good 25% of the forum "discussion" posts are cut-and-pasted straight from wikipedia, blogs, or wherever. Whenever I find one I put it in my spreadsheet of hatefulness. Thing is, that group of plagiarists make up a good deal of my program's revenue, so if and when I pass it on to my advisor, I'm not sure how well it will be received. It's in my interest for the program to have rigorous standards. It's also in my interest for the program to exist for the next three years.

  • argleblargle says:

    Could this be just part of a long term trend? I mean you read stuff from the 19th century, or even the early 20th century, and it seems like everyone is trying to show off their vocabulary in every sentence. I can *understand* it, sure, but it takes concerted effort.

    The style today is all about minimalism- plain speaking in simple words. Maybe that's part of why Trump is doing so well- they say he speaks at the lowest grade level of any of the candidates. Everyone else is just too darn fancy-talkin.

  • Assistant Professor says:

    I teach at a much less fancy school than B, and it's worse here. But I've reached a point where if I use a college-level word, I stop and define it, and then pick up with the lecture again. Hell, even if they get nothing out of the World History sequence, they may improve their vocabulary ever so slightly.

  • Kindle users , age 17 or younger = 2.3%
    Kindle users , age 18 to 34 = 22%

    There is hope that after they leave college that they may read a bit more. Beautiful thing about a Kindle is that you momentarily touch a word you don't know the definition of and seconds later it pops up. You can then highlight that word and all the others in that book and go over them later to increase your vocabulary.

    Part of the problem along with video games, texting, bum jobs they need to work tons of hours at, could be that colleges are taking anybody with a pulse and a 2.5 GPA from Anywhere High School. Then Prof's have to keep the machine fed and pass them along.

  • Would probably have a significantly worse vocabulary if I was born a few years younger. Read a lot of things like 1984 and Catch-22 in high school for fun…until I got the internet in the middle of my senior year. Even then 90's internet seemed to be more Serious Business than modern internet so while it was very pretentious it was probably more educational than modern internet. Have to make a concerted effort to read books these days and even that is mostly audiobooks during my morning hike before the kids wake up.

  • HoosierPoli says:

    Personally I don't like shitting on people because they don't know a word or concept. I mean, we all had to learn these words somewhere, and the whole reason they COME to college is to learn new things.

    What gets me is when they learn it once, and then forget.

  • People who aren't taught correct grammar in school often learn it by context. Teaching grammar and sentence structure and learning to diagram a sentence has gone by the wayside (pet peeve: he gave the ball to John and I – wrong, wrong, wrong. It's like nails on a blackboard to me.)
    I gave up on a blog sometime ago because of the writer's confusion with your and you're, there and their etc.
    I love words, I read compulsively but poor grammar makes me doubt the author.

  • All my grandparents came to this country as children and several of them didn't learn English until they went to school in America. My one grandmother had been in school in her home country as well as America, and her family loved books and word games. Spending time with her meant playing endless games of Scrabble and sitting around the table after dinner playing games where you tell stories/add on to stories/come up with endings to stories. She also had us memorizing poetry in three languages (English, her native language, and her husband's native language). She had a television, but it was only on for the evening news (which was a half-hour in those days). She always gave books as gifts and was happy to read books aloud–but only classics. Younger children would get authors like Robert Louis Stevenson; older ones would get Jane Austen. As you might imagine, she had a fantastic vocabulary. I'm sorry my kids never knew her; she died when they were babies.

  • Now you've got me wondering, Ed; a television show I've enjoyed watching has been Sleepy Hollow (it's been wandering into areas I'm not interested in lately, but the first season was a lot of fun). In the first episode or so, 1700s Ichabod Crane complains that his 2013 sidekick is "speaking gibberish" and he can't understand her. That was the year a friend gave me a book written as if it was his diary for my birthday–I enjoyed the book, but then again, i grew up reading Louisa May Alcott and Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Bronte sisters. I wonder how much of his language is intelligible to college students today?

    As to language levels; early in my career, I taught English as a Second Language and used the newspaper (that's how long ago it was) for functional literacy skills; I believe they were written to an 8th-grade level. I was also a technical writer, and my work had to be written to an 8th-grade level; the tech editor had a grading system to tell what level it was written on. Just recently I read that Donald Trump is operating at about a fifth-grade level in structure and vocabulary, which seems to be where his followers are most comfortable.

  • As an English major I obviously have some bias but I blame stupid people and falling standards halfway and stem worship the other half. Not that SREM subjects are bad in themselves but that the push to have them everywhere by the educated elite who already have basic literacy skills deliberately and consciously undervalues humanities education as irrelevant, even as business people are complaining that younger workers do not know how to communicate either clearly or professionally. Humanities education has value for everyone not just the artsy-fartsies.

  • anotherbozo says:

    The big item yesterday was someone's analysis of campaign speeches, with level of vocabulary examined. Trump won the prize with his 5th-grade-level pitch, no surprise. The others barely made 8th grade. Paging A. Lincoln. We have, as a nation, been declining in literacy since the 19th century. We have pichurs!

    I wonder if one or two of Ed's students, put on the defensive by his need to define basic words, didn't attempt to demonstrate his/her knowledge of neologisms Lincoln would not have known, e.g., computer terms and Twitter cutenesses. Buzzkill! But then Ed would gently have explained the difference between standard vocabulary and internetspeak, I guess.

  • Yet another professor here, with the same experience. Occasionally I bring this up with a class, and they really do not seem to care. In one class, literally none of the 35 students could say what "exponentially" meant, but around half of them had used it in their papers (as a synonym for "lots more"). This is the same sort of semi-literacy that leads to expressions like "for all intensive purposes."

    On another memorable occasion, I found that only one person in the class knew the meaning of a fairly ordinary word that was essential in understanding the argument of the assigned reading. None of the others had looked it up. When I asked why, the general response was a shrug; they reckoned if it was important, I'd just tell it to them in class.

    I can't decide what disturbs me more: the intellectual incuriosity of not caring what words mean, or the fact that small vocabularies leave them ill-equipped to speak or write precisely. Either way, I predict my bourbon consumption will go up over time. But probably not exponentially.

  • Right now you must be teaching the tail end of the millennial a-soon Gen Z is next. I'm a millennial, albeit an earlier one. I actually remember a time before the web explosion. My sister is a late millennial-6 years later, and it's like a whole different universe. I would've read a lot less too if I were her age. And I'm not that much older.

  • And Gen Z will be worse-all the stuff that states coming about when my sister was in middle school/high school, the younger kids have been raised on.

  • Anonymous Prof says:


    I hear you. I gave my students a magazine article to read, and none of them- NONE- could tell me what the author was trying to say. It turns out that few of them even tried- they just skimmed it and tried to BS me with what they thought I wanted to hear. This is a class of seniors, BTW.

    I brought up the old ad with a six-year-old who says "When I grow up, I want to have a brown nose!"

    The problem is that the admissions staff scoops up everyone with a pulse. The students want a diploma mill, and they don't seem to realize that non-diploma mill colleges even exist. And My Racist Dean is happy to oblige them.

  • GunstarGreen says:

    It turns out that, the more we treat young adults not just like children, but like babies — sheltering them from anything that might be challenging or uncomfortable — the more stunted and ill-adapted to the real world they will be.

    Make of that what you will.

  • My fourteen year old son reads – usually online, but used to be print. He's got a good vocabulary going; he recently asked me to explain the difference between a genius and a prodigy, which did I think would be better to be, and why.

    He's grown up in a house with books and magazines, much as I did. I remember visiting a friend's house in elementary school, and realizing that his living room had no bookshelves. How can you live without them? My dad visited the library every Saturday to stock up on novels for the coming week, and I went along to get my fix as well. I will always be grateful to him for inculcating a love of reading in me.

  • When I read, "vocabularies are getting worse with time," my spirits lift as I acknowledge Disraeli's aphorism that "A man who is not a Liberal at sixteen has no heart; a man who is not a Conservative at sixty has no head." So there's hope for you yet, Ed.

    Alternatively, it's not so much that the young have no vocabulary, it's you that hasn't theirs.

  • Start the term with a handout of your collected list of "Words you Probably don't Understand." (Yes, I mean "handout" in a technologically appropriate way–whatever The Kids are reading these days.)

    I'm convinced that lead in gasoline as well as a bunch of the rest of "Living Better Through Chemistry" brain poisons have reduced American IQs at least 10 points.

    Individuals are not averages so the mail gets delivered; but life would be easier if my neighbors were smarter.

  • Mr. Wonderful says:

    My brother-in-law used to work at Goldman Sachs, and with a couple colleagues was responsible for interviewing kids for summer intern jobs. These were students from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. And he was astounded at what they didn't know–e.g., who "the Axis" powers were in WW II, or when the Viet Nam War took place.

  • @jestbill

    You are right lead reducing IQs but your timing is off. The average child in the 1960's would be considered lead poisoned today. So gen z is actually smarter than boomers.

    Of course, gen z was taught everything they know by lead-addled boomer parents and teachers.

  • "Meritocracy" certainly touches a nerve.

    A couple of years ago I was invited to give a presentation on Chinese history for a gifted and talented class at a local private school (they were mostly 5th and 6th graders). At one point in the talk I used "meritocracy" in regards to Confucianism, civil service exams, etc. Because these were younger students I explained the meaning of the word. That's when their teacher (probably in her late 20's) perked up and said, "What a neat concept! I'd never heard of that before…"


    This is a good-sized portion of the answer to your question "why are kids today so stupid they don't understand the words I'm using".

    I'm guessing from your writing you're under 40, right Ed? You probably attained your bachelor's degree in the mid-to-late 90s. In the mid 90s roughly 20% of the population had a bachelor's degree or higher. Now it's 30%. That extra 10% isn't any smarter or better educated coming into college than they would have been in the 1990s – they just go to college now instead of getting a job. And I will bet you that if really think about it – or track it across a few semesters of classes – you will discover that it's no more than a third of your students who appear to be "behind" relative to where you think they should be as young undergrads. (I've done it – I had this same notion over 10 years ago about students then – it was when I figured it was about the bottom quarter of my class seemed underprepared, and that's when a colleague suggested the rise in the sheer number of people getting degrees as a possible explanation – and when I discovered a different version of that graph above.)

    This rant was something that one of my profs in the early 1990s (I'm in my mid 40s myself) went off on HIMSELF when I was in his class. Stupid students didn't understand his vocabulary and back in the day High School prepared you better for college. Except it didn't – back in HIS day (his undergrad days) less than 10% of the population had a college degree, so it was a different group of students going into that first year of undergrad – the equivalent to the best prepared third of the classes we teach now would be roughly the same as his entire class of students as far as their preparation for college is concerned. (As a corollary – that suggests that we have to do a lot more "actual teaching" work than a professor who taught in the 1980s did – when they could expect their students to just read a book and "get" most of it).

    This is far more about the "college is for everyone!" movement that our culture has created than it is about students getting dumber or being less prepared. When only 10% of your population is going to college you're going to have a far different mix of students than when 30% is. And the way that line is basically increasing, unless the Higher Ed model comes crashing down in a collapse of bad loans and lack of jobs for grads, we can probably expect that number to grow even more over the decades until we're old enough to retire. By the time I retire I expect to either see the whole house of cards collapse, or roughly 50% of the population to be getting college degrees of some sort.

  • Why isn't anyone talking about the corporatization of language, which isn't even "creeping" anymore; it's been rolling downhill for at least 3 decades along with a lot of other shit.

  • @nonynony: Yup. Harks back to arguments I've heard about foreign college grads all being smarter than Americans.

    @sluggo: My "timing" is better than your "reading." Yes, most Boomers grew up inhaling auto exhaust and living in houses painted with lead. I said nothing different because I DO remember my high school days. The current leadership of our country is how old?
    The reason I add concern about other neuro-altering chemistry is that I fear that The Kids still can't match the good ole days when poor nutrition was the enemy.

  • I now have this nagging compulsion to again re-read Richard Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.

    So chewy and satisfying, like a pan of Toklas brownies.

  • Another “kids these days” disclaimer blown through to lodge complaints anyway. In a vigorous debate, I have a hard time deciding what’s merely anecdotal and what makes it really, for real, different this time. But then the numbers roll out and demonstrate unimpeachably that regular folks are simply not learning the language as once they did. The ability to communicate is stunted, like the news pitched at a 9th-grade level or candidate’s speech stalled at 5th grade. It’s still a wonder, though, that suspicion still falls heavier on those who can make a legitimate claim to understanding things better than average than those who struggle with the masses to string coherence thoughts together.

    This issue has far wider reach than slowing the progress of a college lecture to define terms a college student really ought to know already. One’s receptive vocabulary is typically much larger than one’s expressive vocabulary, and without sufficient nuance and nomenclature to describe ideas, one is left hemming and hawing with meaningless placeholders for real thoughts. Maybe preverbal fog “feels” convincing, but it’s not. Moreover, self-reporting on communications skill (or assurances offered by our would-be Braggart in Chief) is simply unreliable. It used to be that ignorance on display carried enough shame that a college student might think twice about exposing him- or herself as lacking sufficient vocabulary to hold a conversation. No more. Now it’s ignert and proud, dammit! Can I still get an A before I appeal to the dean with bogus charges of professorial misconduct?

  • aginghippie says:

    I work at a well-known "teacher's college" in Michigan. I had to explain the word "circumspect" to my Nigerian-born Computer Science department head not long ago. Let's maybe examine what passes for academic leadership these days.

  • Skepticalist says:

    It's our own damned fault sometimes:

    A round really isn't a bullet.
    No one was a card "shark."
    Far from the "maddening" crowd….don't get me started…..

    I'm prolly just an old curmudgeon

  • I think the point that more people going to college does do a lot of the work in why students are the way they are these days in anecdotes. I'll put in my two cents. In 2000 when I went to the big state school I met a kid who was proud of the fact that he had only read one book in his entire life. After college I took a class thinking I might go to grad school and needed a prerequisite that I hadn't taken in college, an econ course that asked the question who our largest trading partner was, obviously canada. Many in the room where shocked at this fact. Of course I was in my late twenties at this point and they were 19 20 and if I remember correctly the only reason I knew that fact was that I was the insufferable shit that read the economist in high school so there would be no reason that these kids would know that. As for vocab I don't think anyone actually ever used the words from vocab tests after they were done. And most kids do really well with grades by memorizing the info and then forgetting right after the test. I never could do that so I still know what unctuous means. Also Ted Cruz.

    Another thing to consider. Many people talk about politics, think about politics, and support a political party. Many, many more think about politics once every four years 2 days before the election. I've worked on political campaigns as a campaign staffer and doing a base demographic analysis of elections shocks most people who "know about politics". I voted for Bernie in my primary but want to strangle the folks bitching about super delegates because its as if we didn't have this same debate 8 years ago. I can't get too worked up about his primary because I got too worked up in 2008, my person didn't win, and I've spent too much time in politics to get real excited at this point. But this is a tiny minority of people in this country. Most people know far more about the state of Brad Pitts marriage then I do. Many people read the headlines in Yahoo News and feel that they no whats going on in the world. Only about 5 to 10 percent of the population will ever be considered to be "intellectual" or care deeply about subjects enough to study them. Most people want to talk to their friends about what their other friends are doing.

  • feel that they no whats going on in the world

    If that wasn't intentional, it oughta be.

    Deathless Roger Ailes quote:

    "Viewers don't want to be informed. Viewers want to feel informed."

    Don't no nothin' …

  • I don't think the larger proportion of people acquiring college degrees explains the higher proportion of the incurious without vocabularies. If it did, that original 10% ought to still be in the mix. The fairly wordy 20% should be, too.

    But they aren't. I'm in biology, so our students may come in vocabulary-challenged, but if there's one, just one, student a year with a good vocabulary, they're instantly noticeable. That's how unusual it is. Something besides too many mediocre students is going on.

    My guess is it's a lack of sustained consecutive reading, such as you do with a physical book, and enjoying it during childhood and teenhood. Possibly, one could catch up eventually as an adult. We'll find out.

  • – Deference
    – Meritocracy
    – Contentious
    – Bicameral
    – Substantive
    – Precipitate (as in to cause an event)

    I found myself wondering what contemporary words students might be using for these concepts – might be fun to ask them?

  • Whatever. You fancy professors, with your learnin' crowd.

    I used to interview recent high school graduates for jobs when I worked for Large Chain Drug Store. Very few people knew what the word "rapport" meant. I had people misspell the names of the streets and towns that they lived in on applications.

    I had *multiple* people click that they spoke "Armenian". Why did they click that? Because they thought they were clicking *American*. Multiple People. Who graduated from high school. Knowing what "Meritocracy" means would be a bonus. These people can't even name what language they speak.

  • Some of the lack of fundamental language skills can be blamed on the dumbing down effect from No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. Another issue is that children are not reading except on electronic devices. The use of the electronic devices can be helpful, but the over emphasis in the early childhood years for education is folly. It does nothing to enhance attention spans which is vital for learning later on. It does help computer corporation bottom lines though.

  • There's a tv ad out now where Cookie Monster from Sesame Street is baking up some cookies, and is using Siri to help him with the ingredients and keeping track of time and entertaining him the 14 minutes he has to wait. This ad both delights me (Sesame Street was one of the few shows my parents let us watch when we were young) and depresses me. I grew up with Sesame Street characters singing songs about "c -at: cat; h-at: hat b-at: bat" and "one-two-three-four-FIVE!", not shilling Apple products. Also, I feel as if the old Sesame Street would have taught coping skills for waiting and practicing counting minutes and cleaning up the kitchen in consideration for other people, not depending on some consumer product for everything.

  • The dumbing down began long before the No Child Left Behind act, before the so-called millennial generation. When my husband taught high school English some fifty years ago, he had to help the head of the English department write her papers and a speech she was scheduled to give. The state of semi-literacy we're seeing includes lack of historical background. If you don't read, you don't know history. So we have comments that blame stupidity — when the correct word is ignorance — on lead poisoning or privilege. It's difficult not to fall into the trap of choosing a single factor to blame, but I'd have to say it started with television. When visual entertainment became accessible even to the poor, and was consumed on a daily basis, it took the place of books. Reading skill, much to the pained chagrin of the educated classes, isn't easy to achieve, for many people. It isn't natural or universal, and never has been. All that's happening right now is a return to a more or less pre-literacy state. It's unfortunate that it's also the worst possible time for this to happen.

  • Loyal to the Group of Seventeen says:

    2. What does "bicameral" mean?
    3. Are any of the girls in your class "bicameral"?

  • People have been shocked and appalled by how little the younger generation knows for at least 100 years now. I have a book from the early 1920s which, according to the introduction, has everything in it that a child needs to know to become a functioning adult. Much was made of the fact that most children hadn't and weren't going to learn what they should.

    We tutored some high school kids a while back and were impressed with one kid who had a great vocabulary. Apparently he picked up lots of words reading War Hammer books. War Hammer is a video game with a tie-in line of novels full of political intrigue, history and, as one might expect from the name, warfare. It's the old, Q: How does one get good at reading? A: Read, read, read. I doubt that the War Hammer series is full of deathless prose, again, judging by the name. Still it is perfectly good reading, just like comic books for an earlier generation.

    Another kid had a terrible vocabulary and an amazingly bad ability to figure out meaning from context or by inference. We almost coached her to toss her first two guesses and go with her third choice on the SAT as it would likely get her a better score. On the positive side, she was smart and hard working. We spent six weeks with her reading public domain classics. She liked to read paper books but with a laptop handy for looking up words. She recently graduated from Stanford. All she had to do was read, read, read.

    One problem is that a lot of stuff isn't being taught. I know my school system dropped grammar after I got through middle school, so my younger sister is almost completely ignorant of the subject. One kid we were tutoring had never heard of the parts of speech or the components of a sentence. She was fascinated when we explained them to her. She was also irate; she felt that someone at school should have taught her this stuff. She was the only kid who actually tried to look stuff up in her textbook. To be honest, the textbook was so poorly written that we were amazed that she even tried. She's a STEM major now so she's probably used to poorly written source material.

  • This ought to be a testable hypothesis. The Peabody Picture Vocabulary test is a test of vocabulary as a measure of IQ; has its most recent renorming lowered the bar? I don't know the answer, and I myself can't be buggered looking, but I think anyone who wants to make the case ought to.

  • Speaking of anecdotes, I was a voracious reader in my youth all through high school. I read lots of books and loved doing it. I can still understand archaic "fancy words" that aren't really used that much anymore. What I don't understand, I can usually infer with a high success rate. That said, since I've been reading and reacting to a lot more things since the Internet became super popular, I find myself sometimes struggling to speak accurately when talking to other people these days. I find myself using "ummmm… or uhhhhh" a lot more when engaging in public discourse.

    I have no idea whether this is because I don't nearly read many physical books that challenge or reinforce the wide vocabulary that I have acquired or if it's just that the wide ranging internet articles I consume lack said vocabularic depth. Or maybe I consumed too much "wacky tabacky" in college. Who knows?

  • I can empathize with you. Some of my students, all juniors and seniors in college, seem to have quite a bit of trouble with the terms in the textbook and even fairly common everyday words like "inhibit." And what makes matters worse is when they write a paper for class and use large technical terms but incorrectly, sometimes with hilarious results.

    What I find most interesting is that my university has selective entrance requirements and fairly selective requirements for students to "certify" their major and begin taking upper division courses. As the standards have gone up, the ability to comprehend and use appropriate level vocabulary seems to have gone done.

  • Two anecdotes for you:
    I'm high school class of 2000. Computer nerd through and through. I read voraciously for entertainment until I had steady access to the Internet. From that point on I read paper books occasionally for fun, while the overwhelming majority of my reading was published articles and science-related websites. My vocabulary was good but somewhat archaic, then exposure to scientific literature made it modern, hackish and overly precise.

    My children are in elementary school. I've spoken to them as if they were adults for their entire lives. The eldest reads junky tween fiction for pleasure while the youngest reads comics. Both are adept readers, significantly above their classroom peers in comprehension and recall even though they almost exclusively read material far below their ability.

    In my opinion, the two major factors are an interest in reading for fun and frequent exposure to new words, whether spoken or in print. Without the interest people do not pay attention and miss opportunities. Without the exposure there is no vocabulary growth at all.

    Both children became very interested in reading because of video games; they wanted to play more complex games with a text storyline or plot and their parents were only willing to spend small amounts of time reading the game's dialog out loud. The key motivation for their literary interest was computer games. Books came later; the fact that they were paper is simply because their school and local libraries have only paper copies.

    Both children became interested in vocabulary specifically because I would sometimes use long words like 'occupied' rather than short words like 'busy'. Each enjoyed knowing something their friends did not, the chance to sound 'grown up' and the positive responses from teachers when they used these words properly.

    That highlights a third factor, one which has broader implications for students: family environment. We know that a family's economic status has a large impact on the likely educational success of a child. Family involvement is another strong factor (though the two are correlated).
    Real incomes have been declining steadily since the 70's or so, while hours worked are on the rise as is the incidence of multiple-earner households. Children are often raised by daycare workers, with little meaningful involvement in an actual family. Small wonder those children who grew up like that have little motivation to go beyond the minimum requirements of the machine.

  • As a professional teacher of SAT and ACT prep, I can assure you that my experience conforms exactly with yours. Kids, even the high-achieving, highly motivated ones, have dismal vocabularies.

    I suspect this is the real reason the new SAT has downplayed the importance of vocabulary. The college board must have seen a statistically significant downward curve in the vocab subscores.

  • It appears then, that teaching is one of those professions in which the laborer CAN (and frequently does) blame his tools.

    Do you guys really think that you're the first generation with this complaint?

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