Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Vexing Vocabulary

I have, for some time, been dissatisfied with the content of my fifth-grader's vocabulary lessons. But the latest list just pushed me over the edge.

Before I get into specifics, let's think for a minute about the purpose of vocabulary as an elementary school subject. We teach our children vocabulary to give them a solid foundation of words that they will use in their reading, writing, and conversation. Simple enough, right?

Well, that's why I object to the use of non-root forms as basic vocabulary words. Verbs should be taught in root form, the standard rules of the different tenses and cases learned, and the exceptions to the rules taught as part of the structure of the language. So: shield, falter, depict, flourish, hover, trigger, and consult, not shielding, faltered, depicted, flourished, hovers, triggering, and consulting.

This is an important, but relatively minor objection. Making my blood rise a bit more is the inclusion in this week's vocabulary lesson of the words obelisk and flappers. And yes, flappers is in reference to the defiant ladies who swept the scene following Word War I, not to the part of your toilet that allows the tank to refill after you flush.

It's not that there is anything wrong with these words, it's just that they do not belong in a vocabulary lesson for fifth graders. Sidebars in a history text, sure (in fact, both the history of the flappers and the etymology of the word are fascinating, and one must know the meaning of the word to understand the wonderful song, Has Anybody Seen My Gal?), but what fifth grader will be using them in any of his or her school writing, or indeed in any of the writing that may follow in later life?

But even these two words have not dragged me to the computer to vent my ire. There is just one word in this vocabulary list that represents everything that is wrong with the teaching of vocabulary in today's schools, if the lists I've seen are representative. And that word is—wait for it—


Yes, I can hear you now: "What? Charry? Never heard of it."

No, me neither, and I'm no slouch when it comes to the English language. My mother and stepfather were both newspaper editors. I grew up with word puzzles, discussions about grammar and usage, and jokes about unfortunate newspaper headlines. In my blogs and the books I'm working on, I probably write about five to seven thousand words every week, and it's not even my day job.

So why is my son wasting his time learning a word that no one has ever heard of?

The vocabulary list defines charry as "burned or scorched." I rushed to my Merriam-Webster pocket dictionary. Certainly a word that is taught to fifth graders would be in a 60,000-word dictionary for adults. Nope. How about the 1947 edition? Not there either. How about online? Yep. But don't think that lets the authors of this vocabulary list off the hook.

For one thing, there are two accepted definitions of the word charry that I have been able to find, and neither matches the one in the test. Charry means "Pertaining to charcoal, or partaking of its qualities." This is according to the unabridged 1913 edition of the Merriam-Webster dictionary. I've also seen some reference to its use by wine connoisseurs and wine makers to describe a burnt taste or odor.

When is any fifth grader ever going to use the word charry? In that report he or she is giving on fine wines? I think I have a problem with that. Even in the realm of the qualities of charcoal, I cannot find reference to this word in any literature within the last century.

And if this fifth grader did end up using the word charry, and started including it in some future writing, having learned it from this lesson, it would be used incorrectly!

Charry is the most egregious example of many faults I've seen in this lists over the course of this school year. It's almost funny. But not really. We owe our children much better than this. We owe them lesson materials by people who actually know the language, who know how to build a working vocabulary, who know the true definitions of the words in their list, and furthermore, how to make it as interesting as it is, indeed, capable of being.

This doesn't take extra money; no one's budget is going to suffer from the decision to provide a better vocabulary lesson. But the reward is better reading, writing, and speaking skills for all our our students. And, really, it is the least we can do.

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