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Words Are Power

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
Everyone's looking for a quick fix in education -- President Obama most of all. "Let's make sure none of our children start out the race of life already a step behind," he says. "Let's make it a national priority to give every child access to high quality early education."

Sure, let's. Let's wave a magic wand over every child to get him or her into a prestigious private school, just like the president's own children.

It's not that we shouldn't pay attention to early learning and cheerfully pay for what works. But when the government got into the business of preschools, as it did with Head Start, it manages to bring as little attention as it could to the dismal results. There were no measurable advantages for children in low-income families to advance to the upper grades.

Of course, it's easy to criticize, but it's a grim fact that only in a fantasy can any program raise academic scores for all children. Anyone who saw the documentary "Waiting for Superman" knows that we're more likely to deal with Clark Kent, an unglamorous guy with thick glasses, than with the Man of Steel. Improving the education of our children is always easier in a comic strip.

Lots of anecdotes feed the subject on which educational theories thrive. While we're trapped in a budget crunch and the teachers unions continue to resist performance evaluations and make it difficult to dismiss bad teachers, it's unlikely we'll see substantial changes in the public schools anytime soon. Since we're searching through anecdotes to measure what can help, let me offer a happy story:

An eighth-grader of my acquaintance recently visited me after school, bubbling with enthusiasm about a simple classroom exercise that day. "We learned Greek and Latin roots in humanities class," he said, dropping his backpack on my kitchen floor. "'Path,' for example, deals with suffering, disease or emotion -- pathology, psychopath, pathological. Then there's 'cap' as in captain, capital letter, capitol building and 'phon' for phone, phonic."


He rattled on about roots, prefixes and definitions with an excitement I hadn't seen before. He continued, and I ran for the dictionary (online, naturally) and tracked the sounds as he recited them.

This wasn't excitement after a day at an expensive private school, but from a charter public school. My young friend and his classmates were chosen by lottery. This was public school money put to good and effective use, and I rarely had heard such intoxication with learning before.

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.

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