Understanding Language in Context- An Article Commentary

I came across an education article about the importance of understanding vocabulary words, and the context they’re used in. The article, It’s Building Kids’ Vocabulary, Stupid, was published on the 19th by education author Julia Steiny. She wrote a wonderful piece on this very subject; her introduction is this:

In the tedium of tests, testing, test scores, and so-called accountability, the point of education is lost.  Tests are not the point.  Learning is.  Testing is merely the read on the dipstick into a kid’s tank of knowledge.  Tests assess How Much learning has taken place.

I like the way she introduces this topic. I wrote about improving ESL literacy a while ago, but it’s a topic that can always be discussed and techniques can always be improved. Like she says, tests only tell us how much learning has taken place, but not if they understand the material they’ve been taught. She mentions well-known and published educator and education writer, E.D. Hirsch. Dr. Hirsch created the Core Knowledge Foundation – an organization that seeks to improve the education standards and techniques used in the classroom.

She goes on to say:

The simple idea embedded in Hirsch’s large canon of writings is this:  knowing more words makes a kid smarter.  How?  Consider his 2006 example that has haunted me since I first ran across it:

Jones sacrificed and knocked in a run.

As a confident reader, I can tell you what every one of those words means.  But as a sports idiot, I read the sentence without comprehension.  Which is to say I can’t really read it.  Any baseball nut can tell you exactly what the sentence means because their understanding of the sport provides the context that give baseball meanings to “sacrifice,” “knock” and “run.”

She makes an important point – anyone who knows the vocabulary can tell you what those words mean individually, but unless the reader is familiar with the context those words are used in, the meaning and intent of the sentence is lost.

Understanding what you are reading, can only come from understanding the language within its appropriate context.

She talks about how Dr. Hirsch, in that example, goes on to explain a bit about what baseball is to a British listener who may know nothing of the sport. Without such an explanation, the British (or other non-American) listener may have trouble understanding how those words “sacrifice”, “knock”, and “run” in the sentence, “Jones sacrificed and knocked in a run.”, are bent to give that sentence meaning.

Helping students build new contexts, helps them improve their vocabulary.

Steiny reinforces this notion by briefly summarizing the Core Curriculum (as developed by Dr. Hirsch).

Not surprisingly, the Core Curriculum leans heavily on classic literature and actual history, geography, and civics — as opposed to hard-to-define social studies.  Designed for students pre-K through 8th grade, the Curriculum systematically teaches the sort of knowledge that was far more common in my day.  Yes, modern works have been woven in, and in interesting ways.  But the spine is, well, good old Western Civilization built out to be more inclusive and contemporary, but not dumbed-down.  Rigorous literature and primary historical sources have chewy syntax and unfamiliar words.  Challenging language requires more effort, but the payoff is that with teacher guidance, children enter new worlds that expand their horizons.  Each new context, like baseball, has words or word-meanings all its own.

Contrast classical literature with the vapid, politically-correct writings found in the Basal readers developed by textbook companies whose goal is to market their wares.  Textbook companies have long lists of rules that govern what goes into their sanitized texts, rules designed to reduce offense to easily-offended public School Committees.  One rule is to avoid everything written before 1970 — too many white male protagonists and authors, among many other sins.  (For infuriating details on corporate educational publishers and why public school kids read such dreck, read Diane Ravitch’s painful but brilliant book, The Language Police.)

While the curriculum does use lots of classical books and methods, it does help the students understand the contexts of the language at the time. As the students develops a better and more comprehensive contextual awareness, they are able to better apply the words they’ve learned within the different situations they find themselves in. I like how she makes a jab at how easily offended public school boards are; their rule about avoiding everything written before 1970 is absurd and does nothing to help the students learn.
She continues,
Classics are inevitably offensive because their values come out of other times, places and cultures.  But it is precisely by taking a child into those other contexts that broaden their horizons and their historical, cultural and linguistic foundations.
This is a good point. The values and beliefs that our ancestors and past civilizations once held would be “offensive” in light of modern values, but to try to hide or rewrite those views while having modern values in mind, would be a major disservice to history and those who lived through those times.

Instead of actually reading broadly, kids learn “reading skills.”

In ESL, teachers teach reading skills: how to pronounce words, read sentences, learn vocabulary words and what those words mean. they give tests to assess how well the students have learned to read, write and speak English, but they rarely teach the contexts where that language is used. If they do, it’s brief and doesn’t give the students much to work with when trying to practice what they’ve learnt.

Steiny finishes off her article with this:

We’ve grown so crazed with assessments that we’ve forgotten what on earth it is we’re trying to measure.  By all means measure.  I love data.  Measure words.  You’ll know kids mastered a subject if they have the vocabulary to talk about it intelligently.  If we immerse students in real contexts that expand knowledge and build vocabulary, kids will have a shot at an education.
This is a great finishing paragraph. Data is good, very useful in fact. Without it we can’t really find out how to improve the current methods, or assess how well learning is taking place in the classrooms. But, if the students only learn the words and definitions without learning the contexts to accompany their expanded vocabulary, it’s useless. If we help create a sense of curiosity within students, they may have a greater desire to learn.


Filed under Adolescence, Boys and Girls, Education, ESL, Kids, Literacy Skills, Reading, Teaching Methodology, Thinking, Vocabulary Skills

5 responses to “Understanding Language in Context- An Article Commentary

  1. This article (and the article you refer to) bring up a lot of good points. Students who know more words will understand their textbooks better, and teaching context is very important: without context, anything can lose meaning. Do you mind if I reblog this?


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