February 27 Newsletter

The Vocabulary Crisis: How to Fix It

Our students’ vocabularies inform both who they are and who they can be. Evidence suggests, however, that our students are reading less, hearing less conversation, and bringing a smaller vocabulary to college.1

Most of us already have techniques we use for promoting vocabulary learning, but we generally direct these at our field-specific terminology. We need to be more self-conscious about the other kind of vocabulary, the kind we used to presume students learned on their own. Here are some practical steps.

  1. We will need to resist the natural pressure to simplify our language to make ourselves understood; instead, we need to use a deliberately rich vocabulary. It is especially useful if we employ words drawn from the reading. When we do so, we give students the auditory cues that can cement vocabulary learning. We also embed the vocabulary in a more accessible context, informed by things like body language and gesture.
  2. We need to be more thoughtful about the way we use words that may be unfamiliar, deliberately introducing more synonyms, explanations, repetition, and circumlocution. In this way students who are reluctant to announce their ignorance get a graceful way to learn what we mean (and learn words at the same time).
  3. We will need to ask students more often to recast textual information in their own words, not only through the more traditional means of formal paraphrasing and summary but also verbally and on the spot. This process of “recoding” has been shown to be crucial to creating vocabulary memory.2 In a discussion it may mean slowing things down and resisting the impulse to move constantly forward.
  4. We need to encourage students to play with new words. Word games are some of the easiest playful activities to include in the classroom. We should consider adding ordinary words from the reading to these games. We don’t need to be game-creators to do this. Many commercial word games can be easily adapted to our content. A good example is the 2016 Game of the Year (Spiel des Jahres): Codenames.
  5. We need to think carefully about how to assess and reward ordinary vocabulary gains. Since the number of words encountered over a semester can run into many thousands, traditional methods won’t help. Instead we should consider adding explicit categories for precise and appropriate word choice to our evaluation of written and oral work. We can also reward thoughtful attention to words by calling attention to and praising the way students phrase in-class comments.

No matter what field we are in, we need to model for students an excitement in words and language and allow them to experience the power that comes from fitting a new word to a new situation. If we are inclined to be pessimistic or to lament the decay of learning, we should take heart. Research tells us that language is hard-wired in the human brain.3 We have biology on our side.

[For more on the vocabulary crisis, see Ian’s post on the GLCA/GLAA CTL website.]

Ian MacInnes, Department of English


1 Tom Nicholson and Sue Dymock, Teaching Reading Vocabulary (NZCER Press, 2017). “To Read or Not To Read: A Question of National Consequence” (National Endowment for the Arts, 2007).

2 Marilee Sprenger, How To Teach So Students Remember (Alexandria, Va: Assn for Supervision & Curriculum, 2005).

3 Many researchers have contributed to this claim. One recent source is Iris Berent et al., “Language Universals Engage Broca’s Area,” PLOS ONE 9, no. 4 (April 17, 2014): e95155, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0095155.




Fiona Macrae, “iPad Generation ‘Will Learn Fewer Words’ as Oral Tradition of Passing on Knowledge Is Dying out,” Mail Online, July 23, 2013.

Maryellen Weimer, “A New Way to Help Students Learn Course Vocabulary.” From Faculty Focus.

In 1999, Kathleen Gabriel estimated that, for students with poor vocabularies reading textbooks (and possibly even listening to lectures), “the meaning of every tenth word is unknown.” In her book Teaching Unprepared Students, pp. 110-14, she outlines a strategy for helping students build their vocabularies. The book is available in the CTL Library (Ferguson 108).

Vocabulary building? There’s an app for that! Actually there are quite a few. Here are some suggestions from Inc.


Teaching Men: What Difference Does It Make? What Difference Can It Make?” by Warren Rosenberg (Wabash College).  “Behind the ‘masks of masculinity,’” says Warren, “our male students are fully and complicatedly human, a fact those masks are designed to make us forget.”

Multiple Choice Makes a Comeback” by Rick Warner (Wabash College). Multiple choice questions are useful not only for assessing “factoid recall.” Drawing on his experience as a reader of the World History AP Exam, Rick shows us how to design multiple choice questions that engage higher-order learning skills AND make grading a breeze.


News from The Newell CTL

Stockwell 305. The walls are painted, the carpet is laid, and the furniture is arranged. Still needed: light fixtures, books, a key card access door handle, and YOU! Stop by and take a peek at the new CTL space!

Spring Coteries. Our three book coteries are enrolled and ready to go! For more information about the Ethnic Studies/Faculty Committee on Diversity coterie, please contact Ashley Feagin. The book: When Grit Isn’t Enough: A High School Principal Examines How Poverty and Inequality Thwart the College-for-All Promise. Co-sponsored by The Newell CTL.

Talking about Teaching. You can always talk about teaching. Find a partner, trade classroom observations, and talk about teaching while having a Baldwin Cafe lunch on The Newell CTL! To register, just reply to this newsletter.

About Jocelyn McWhirter

Jocelyn McWhirter is the Stanley S. Kresge Professor of Religious Studies at Albion College in Albion, Michigan.
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