He was further excited that his classmates were as pleased as he was for suddenly expanding their vocabulary. Five of the children in his class scored 100 on a vocabulary test later in the week, using more than 50 words whose roots they had learned. The teacher was pleased, too, and said it was a record.
Learning vocabulary can be fun, and there's a theory that comes with it. E.D. Hirsch, a leading teacher and academic critic who has studied cultural literacy for decades, thinks vocabulary size is an indicator of both learning and earning.
"The correlations between vocabulary size and life chances are as firm as any correlations in educational research," he writes in City Journal, published by the Manhattan Institute. He supports parents who put an emphasis on the SAT vocabulary test as more than an exercise to get their children into a good college. Vocabulary is a gift that keeps on giving.
Hirsch makes a strong case for the notion that words are power; that there's a demonstrable predictor that those with an expanded vocabulary are likely to earn more as adults. As with any theory, it's wise to be wary, but common sense as well as academic research tells us that someone with a rich vocabulary understands more.
Hirsch insists that simply memorizing words isn't the best way to increase vocabulary because there are between 25,000 to 60,000 words to be learned by the 12th grade. He makes a case for "content" or "sequential learning" in a common-core curriculum, where children in each grade build a vocabulary by building on what he has learned before. Already 45 states have adopted the core curriculum. It's no panacea, but it's worth watching and evaluating.
Meanwhile, whether at home, in the car, on the bus or in the classroom, learning words is a good thing to encourage a child to do. If inequality reflects a poverty of words, expanding vocabulary is not a head start -- but it's a good start.