Saturday, March 2, 2013

A Wealth of Words

The Key to Increasing Upward Mobility Lies in Expanding One’s Vocabulary

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.

[Edited, truncated and largely rewritten by FreeThinke]

Winter 2013

A number of notable recent books, including Joseph Stiglitz’s The Price of Inequality and Timothy Noah’s The Great Divergence, lay out in disheartening detail the growing inequality of income and opportunity in the United States, along with the decline of the middle class. The aristocracy of family so deplored by Jefferson seems upon us; the counter-aristocracy of merit that long defined America as the land of opportunity has receded.

These writers emphasize global, technological, and sociopolitical trends in their analyses. However, we should factor in another cause of receding economic equality: the decline of educational opportunity. There’s a well-established correlation between a college degree and economic benefit. 

For guidance on what helps students finish college and earn more income, we should consider the SAT, whose power to predict graduation rates is well documented. The way to score well on the SAT — at least on the verbal SAT — is to have a large vocabulary. The SAT is essentially a vocabulary test.

... Vocabulary size is a convenient proxy for a whole range of educational attainments and abilities — not just skill in reading, writing, and speaking, but also general knowledge of Science, History, and the Arts. If we want to reduce economic inequality in America, a good place to start would be in the classroom devoted to language arts.

Early in the twentieth century, a new concept of education became dominant ... It included optimism about children’s natural development, a belief in the unimportance of factual knowledge, and a corresponding belief in the importance of training the mind through practical experience. 

In the 1920s and ‘30s, these ideas began spreading to teacher-training institutions. It took two or three decades for the new ... ideas to revolutionize schoolbooks and classroom practices. The first students to undergo this new schooling process began kindergarten in the 1950s and arrived at 12th grade in the 1960s.

Their test scores showed the impact of the new ideas. From 1945 to 1967, 12th-graders’ verbal scores on the SAT and other tests had risen. But thereafter started to plummet. ... Prior to 1967 test scores had been rising steadily for 50 years. They reached their low point around 1980 and have remained low ever since.

Some scholars thought the precipitous fall of verbal SAT scores simply reflected the admirable increase in the percentage of low-income students taking the SAT. The same decline of verbal achievement, however, had occurred on the Iowa Test of Educational Development — a test given to students, who were 98 percent white and mostly middle-class. The declining effectiveness of American schools appeared to be a leading indicator for shrinking income in the American middle-class. The evidence since strongly suggests this is correct. ... 

For 30 years after 1945, Stiglitz observes, economic equality advanced in the United States; after about 1975, it declined.

Later, the sociologist Donald Hayes, showed that the decline of these SAT scores reflected the watering down of our textbooks. Following the lead of literacy scholar Jeanne Chall, Hayes found that publishers, under the influence of progressive educational theories, had begun to use simplified syntax and a greatly limited vocabulary. Hayes demonstrated that the dilution of knowledge and vocabulary, rather than poverty, explained most of the test-score drop.

... Studies examining the Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT), which the military devised in 1950 –– a two-part test that predicts real-world job performance most accurately when the verbal score is doubled and added to the math score. ... A gain of one standard deviation on the AFQT raises one’s annual income by nearly $10,000. 

Other studies show that much of the disparity in the black-white wage gap disappears when you take AFQT scores — again, weighted toward the verbal side — into account.

Such correlations between vocabulary size and performance are as firm as any in educational research. ... There’s no better index to accumulated knowledge and general competence than the size of a person’s vocabulary. Simply put: knowing more words makes you smarter and gives you greater earning potential. ... 

Why should this be so? ...

The space where we solve our problems is called “working memory.” 

... It’s a small space capable of holding a limited number of items  in suspension for just a few seconds. If one doesn’t make the right connections within that small window of opportunity, one must start over again.  Hence, one method for coping and problem solving is to reduce the number of items that one must try to comprehend at any moment. 

The psychologist George A. Miller called that process “chunking.” Telephone numbers and Social Security numbers are good examples. The number (212) 374-5278, written in three chunks, is a lot easier to cope with than 2123745278. The same is true when information of this kind is enunciated.

Words are highly effective chunking devices.  Suppose you put a single item into your working memory — say, “Pasteur.” As long as you hold in your long-term memory a lot of associations with that name, you don’t need to dredge them up and try to cram them into your working memory.  The name serves as a brief proxy for whatever knowledge  will turn out to be needed to cope with your problem. The more readily available such proxies are, the better your ability will be to deal with various problems. ...

... Word-learning occurs slowly through a largely unconscious process.  Consider the word “excrescence.” Few are familiar with it; fewer still encounter it in their everyday lives. Maybe you do know it, but try for a moment to imagine you don’t.

Now suppose you were presented with this sentence: “To calculate fuel efficiency, the aerospace engineers needed an accurate estimation of excrescence drag caused by the shape of the plane’s cabin.”  That single exposure to the word was probably insufficient for you to grasp its meaning, unless you were acquainted with the principles of aerospace engineering. Here’s we see the word in another context: “Excrescences on the valves of the heart are known to be a cause of stroke.” Perhaps now you have a vague understanding of the word? A third example will allow you to check and refine your sense of the meaning: “The wart, a small excrescence on his skin, had made Jeremy self-conscious for years.” 

By now, you probably have a pretty solid understanding of the word, and one more encounter in a familiar context should verify your understanding ...

You’ve probably figured out by now that the word “excrescence” means “an outgrowth.” 

... The sense of meaning we gain from multiple exposures to a word isn’t a fixed and definite quantity, but rather a system of possibilities that get narrowed down through CONTEXT on each occasion.  ... Almost all the words we know are acquired indirectly as we intuit the gist of each new experience in reading or conversation.

General familiarity with subjects under discussion, of course, increases the possibility a student’s unconscious guesses at the meaning of unfamiliar words are likely to be right.

This evidence suggests the fastest way to expand students’ vocabulary would be through a curriculum that presents new words in familiar contexts. ... Spending lots of time on vocabulary lists unrelated to a particular context is an inefficient and insufficient method of inproving vocabulary. ... A large vocabulary results not so much from memorizing word lists, but from stimulating student curiosity simply by continual exposure to many and varied subjects. ...

To make the necessary school changes in the United States, an intellectual revolution needs to occur in order to undo the vast anti-intellectual revolution that took place in the 1930s. We can’t afford to victimize ourselves further by continued loyalty to outworn and mistaken ideas. Of these, the idea that most requires overturning is the notion that schooling should not concern itself not with the acquisition of mere factual knowledge, which is constantly changing. Instead we need to provide students the intellectual tools needed to acquire and assimilate new knowledge. Typically these include the ability to look things up, to think critically, and to accommodate oneself wit increasing flexibilitly to an unknown and unknowable future. ...

[NOTE: E.D. Hirch’s complete article in its extremely lengthy original form may be found at the following link:]


  1. Oy...the neuronal excrescence in my Wernicke area is now smarting.

  2. Great post, FT! Right up my alley!

    For many years, I have taught a course in SAT verbal prep. I place a strong emphasis on "word math," that is, the study of roots, prefixes, and suffixes. "Word math" used to be included in English courses -- from Grade 5 through Grade 12. Now, only gifted and talented students regularly study roots, prefixes, and suffixes.

    My Latin and Spanish students keep commenting, "Studying foreign language really helps build vocabulary in English."

    I must say that I've seen a precipitous drop in vocabulary level in the past ten years. Many students simply cannot understand British literature because they do not have the vocabulary level to do so.

    I have found that playing certain vocabulary flash card games encourages students to learn more words and word parts. Competition is a valuable teaching tool!

  3. BTW, if I had more energy, I'd expand upon what I said above.

    Alas! Working on my taxes today has sapped my strength! I'm sure that I'll be fast asleep by 8:00 tonight.

  4. Thersites,
    That symptom you mentioned is a good sign. Crossing the corpus callosum, I think, accounts for the pain.

    No pain, no gain. :^)

  5. Dr. Ben Carson, whose speech in front of Obama at the inaugural prayer breakfast you posted a while back, attributes most of his own academic success to his mother's making him read two books a week to correct his previous bad academic standing. That would certainly build vocabulary.

    But what people don't really recognize is that the new philosophies of education that have been destroying education in this nation also have a conspiratorial background through the big foundations who actually set themselves to undermine American education in order to bring us into some kind of alignment with the USSR. You can hear about Congressman Dodd's testimony on You Tube about what he discovered as head of the Reece Committee which investigated the foundations in the 50s, also Charlotte Iserbyt's testimony, who had a role in the Reagan administration that also revealed this conspiracy to her.

    A Communist plot in other words, in some unlikely places.

    By the way I can hardly read the test word in the dark box. Had to zoom to 400% to see it ast all and still don't know if I did see it.

  6. I have material on Congressman Dodd at the Reece hearings I believe you sent me a while ago, Connie. I've been waiting for a propitious moment to use it as a post.

    You know, I'm sure, that I am in complete accord with every the congressman said, even though most still insist on dismissing it as "mere conspiracy theory," and will ask reflexively like so many trained parrots, "Where's your proof? Show us the proof."

  7. I've made an attempt to post the following at Progressive Eruptions, the blog owned and operated by Ms. Shaw Kenawe. Whether she chooses to post it or not remains to be seen.

    I made some fairly extensive remarks about the Bob Woodward v. The White House Situation early this morning, but apparently they were not welcome at Progressive Eruptions, which surprised me, because Ms. Shaw, even though we disagree on nearly everything when it comes to politics, is usually very gracious about posting whatever I try to say.

    Unfortunately, I failed to take the precaution of copying what I tried to post, so it is now lost and gone forever. It's no one's fault but mine. BOO HOO!

    At any rate, what I've attempted to say there just a few minutes ago is entirely relevant to the article featured here today, so without further ado here goes nothing:


    Here's what I said in response:

    Many bizarre, disturbing things -- including myriad linguistic atrocities -- entered American life in the mid 1960's and have subsequently been deemed "acceptable," because -- like it or not -- once an idiotic illiterate expression gets bruited about incessantly on television by the fiends who have been deliberately "dumbing us down" since the early 1950's, the expression inevitably takes hold and soon "goes viral." That does not make it good.

    Split infinitives, recognition and proper use of the subjunctive and the possessive have all but vanished -- even in the ivory towers of academe -- persistent use of extraneous prepositions and clumsy, hopelessly inelegant phrases such as "I don't know where I'm at," "I like the fact that the apartment has two bathrooms," or "I like that my girl friend has blond hair," or "Her and me are way cool with each other," or "Message me, and I'll let you now if we can hook up." and on and on proliferate like roaches in a filthy slum kitchen.

    I sit in front of the TV and writhe in anguish and indignation, precisely because this sort of thing is considered "perfectly acceptable usage" today.

    Ergo, I'll try to verify,
    While you work to fact check.
    It matters not that I could cry
    'Cause syntax now's a wreck --
    A travesty of competence --
    An aggravating bore --
    And I must watch in impotence,
    While standards hit the floor.
    I offer one last parting shot
    As I head for the 'burbs:
    It's clear the culture's gone to pot
    When nouns are used as verbs.

    And by the way, Mr. Anderson [a person who attempted to correct me], I'm certain that while compound nouns are, indeed, hyphenated, compound verbs are not.

    And now I'm going to discontentedly leave you and go back to shouting epithets and throwing wads of tear-soaked tissues at the TV to impotently express my rage, frustration and grief over the fact that degeneration has overtaken us with a vengeance and nobody but a few old diehards like me gives so much as hoot in hell about it.

    As we slide fecklessly in The Abyss, I wish all of you HAPPY LANDINGS!


  8. This problem is nothing new. Many many years ago -- possibly as far back as the Sick-sties -- The Reader's Digest ran an article entitled The Word is Out Anything Goes Verbalizationwise.

    I wonder of reprints might still be available.

    Edwin Newman, who is probably long forgotten now wrote a brilliant book cataloguing and bewailing the declining linguistic standards forty years ago.

    The William Safire wrote excellent columns On Language every week for the Sunday edition of the New York Times. That went on for years.

    William F. Buckley, while he lived, wrote regretfully, but always brilliantly and amusingly about the abysmal conditions into which we were slipping so rapidly.

    Alas! The ruminations of these and other wise and learned Gentleman of the Old School are simply dismissed today as "outmoded" and "irrelevant."

    All the signs seem to indicate that what happened to The Golden Age of Pericles has been happening to us most of my adult life.

    If you want to know the truth, it makes me feel the way those passengers on the Titanic must have felt as the great ship sank beneath them into the frigid waters of the North Atlantic.

  9. Being censored at Ms. Shaw's puts you in grand company. ;)

  10. I don't know how you can listen to Norman Dodd's testimony and think it's anything but honest and sincere and not hoked up conspiracy thinking. But then people have no ability to judge character any more either.

  11. Well, Thersites, I know how you and Ms Shaw feel about each other, but despite all that -- and my appreciation for your understanding, and many of your contributions here -- Ms Shaw and I have found much to like about one another, even though we are at loggerheads over politics.

    You must forgive me, but I have little taste for enmity, although I refuse to capitulate merely to keep the peace. At the some time having no wish to exacerbate bad feelings I mightily resist "throwing gasoline" at raging infernos.

    Needless to say I am not happy when people I like and respect are bitterly at odds. I had to cope with plenty of that when family members engaged in internecine warfare when I was a wee bairn. It upset me a great deal, so I've -- even though I have as much capacity for fury as anyone -- I attempt to sublimate it whenever possible by writing poetry or making earnest efforts to explain things to myself -- often in this most peculiar semi-public cyber venue.

    Enough explanation for the moment, I'm sure.

    Enjoy your Sunday!

  12. I'm sorry you had trouble with Word Verification, Connie. I've had SO much SPAM in the past few weeks it was becoming overwhelming. I've also temporarily tried to "trollproof" the blog by disallowing anonymous comments.

    I too find Word Verification cumbersome and annoying, but here's a trick that has helped me:

    I try ALWAYS to COPY my post before attempting to publish it. THEN, if the code word is too hard to decipher, I just type in ANYTHING in box, attempt to post, and when it fails, a whole new set of letters and numbers that are usually easier to decipher appears. This -- for me -- is a lot easier than wasting time trying read was is often stupidly unclear.

    If by any chance the blog goes BLOOEY! and disappears, as it often does in situations of this kind for no apparent reason, you still have your remarks saved, and can reenter the blog and try again -- OR -- put them in Word or even Email to be retrieved when it's convenient.

    Morons and hateful people make the world a stupid, often hateful place. All we can do is work around them as much as possible,

    Thanks for visiting the blog.

  13. Faith,
    You might be interested in watching THIS VIDEO and checking THIS LINK.

  14. Years ago I enjoyed reading Edwin Newman's book on language and vocabulary. One of the benefits of a better vocabulary would be better employment opportunities, as you say, and another may well be a better understanding of the world around us, as well, or a trained nose for rooting out acorns and bull shit, since acorns today seem to be buried deeper in the earth.

    I know other books were written in the same genre of improving language and vocabulary, but are they still around today? They do provide an almost immediate benefit to the reader definitely missing today in most of today's partisan prose.

    Faith, I agree that I can't see anything disingenuous in the interviews and videos of Norman Dodd. To me he is more of a hero since he came face to face with the problem that lies at the root of the problems of our world today—and he spoke openly about it attempting to expose it to any that care to listen. An excellent old book still available on the subject is "Foundations: Their Power and Influence". It's written by Rene Wormser, the leader of the congressional investigation into this issue. It corroborates exactly what Norman Dodd states in the interviews that I've seen.

  15. Thanks for the links and references. I mentioned Charlotte Iserbyt myself, her testimony is very convincing, thorough and scary.

  16. About word verification....

    Copy the comment; then reload the comments form via the arrow to the right of the word-verification space you want to use or via closing the comments box and trying again.

    Often the above reloading procedure will correct the problem with seeing the necessary characters.

  17. Faith,
    I'm not sure about the dangers of flouride -- as mentioned in the video link I left.



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