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The Importance of Vocabulary

April 8, 2020 jill Blog


By Joe Oswald

Without a strong vocabulary, a person’s educational and employment opportunities are limited, especially in today’s fast-paced, competitive, and global society. With study after study showing the correlation between an extensive vocabulary and higher socio-economic status, the need for a strong vocabulary has never been more important.

A March 11, 2010, article by Ammon Shea titled “Vocabulary Size” appeared in New York Times Magazine. In the article, Shea cited a 2009 study by the Educational Testing Service called “Parsing the Achievement Gap II.” According to the article, The Educational Testing Service has been concerned with improving vocabulary since 1947, and their report explained some of the benefits of having an extensive vocabulary, including stating that numerous studies over the last 100 years has linked higher vocabularies to higher incomes and socio-economic status.

One reason for this might be because vocabulary is linked to reading comprehension and academic achievement, and academic achievement is linked to better career opportunities and therefore income and socio-economic status. In fact, high levels of reading comprehension are not possible without a strong vocabulary, and reading comprehension is the key to accessing knowledge by all people, young or old, student or adult. Whether studying for a college entrance exam, a professional licensing test, reading the newspaper, or teaching oneself to prepare for a new career or job position, the ability to access information for personal and professional advancement is not possible without strong comprehension and vocabulary skills.

According to the New York Times Magazine article, by the age of three, children raised in a professional household know twice as many words as children raised on welfare. Furthermore, the article “Tackling the ‘Vocabulary Gap’ Between Rich and Poor Children” by Christopher Bergland that appeared in Psychology Today on February 16, 2014, stated “by age three children from lower-income families may hear up to 30 million fewer words than their more privileged counterparts.”

Additionally, in a lecture by Dr. Anne Fernald at the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science conference held at the University of Chicago on February 14, 2014, Dr. Fernald stated “five-year-old children of lower socio-economic status score two years behind on standardized language development tests by the time they enter school.” Dr. Fernald contends signs of vocabulary deficiencies are evident before a child is even two years old.

The good news, as researchers state, is the lack of an extensive vocabulary and the long-term consequences in achievement gaps and income status statistically linked to lower vocabularies can be overcome once people realize the importance of a strong vocabulary and a person’s ability to improve their own vocabulary and that of their children’s.

One of the best ways to improve one’s vocabulary is reading a lot and reading more complex texts. Unfortunately, studies also show that people of all ages are reading less and less, and the over-reliance on texting and other forms of social media, especially by school-age children, continues to skew the English language and diminish the use of proper grammar, sentence structure, and advanced vocabulary.

In fact, an article that appeared in the Washington Post on June 29, 2018, by Christopher Ingram stated that leisure reading in the United States is at an all-time low according to the “American Time Use Survey” compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The number of people who read for pleasure on a given day has declined by more than 30 percent since 2004. The study also shows the amount of time spent reading has declined from 23 minutes per day in 2004 to 17 minutes per day in 2017.

The article also states, that according to survey data from the Pew Research Center and Gallup, the number of people not reading any book in a given year almost tripled between 1978 and 2014. This tragedy has been exacerbated in urban school districts, such as the Chicago Public Schools, where budgetary decisions resulted in the closing of hundreds of school libraries, leaving the most vulnerable children without any access to books.

Furthermore, vocabulary simply is not emphasized in school like it used to be, especially after elementary school; high schools typically do not offer dedicated reading classes as part of the standard curriculum, as it is expected students already have a solid foundation in reading and vocabulary by the time they reach high school. However, this expectation does not hold true across the board, especially in many urban schools where students enter high school years below grade level. This puts high school students who are already behind academically at an even bigger disadvantage, often with no way to catch up.

Students are also expected to figure out the meaning of words from “context clues.” Deriving the meaning of words in context is a crucial life skill and is needed for the new SAT, which was completely redesigned in 2016. However, the problem is that many words simply cannot be figured out from context clues. This skill is especially difficult for people who are already struggling readers, have learning disabilities, or are not native English speakers. Many poor readers in school struggle just to understand the words in questions on standardized tests, let alone the vocabulary they encounter in complex reading passages on exams such as the SAT or ACT. This creates huge problems for students who have language barriers.

Vocabulary also affects one’s perception of others, either in a positive or negative way. A person who has a strong and professional vocabulary will stand out and garner a positive perception over someone who constantly uses slang, improper English, or low-level words. This positive perception can open many doors and allow people to be successful in a variety of endeavors. The importance of being able to communicate effectively in a knowledgeable and professional manner—whether it be on a college entrance statement, a resume, a job application, a job interview, or a school or work presentation—cannot be underestimated.

The words people use and the confidence in which they use them are powerful factors in success as is the ability of people to promote themselves and their skills or perform at higher levels of academic or professional achievement. A strong vocabulary creates the foundation for all these success attributes. This is why in study after study about the importance of vocabulary, one theme stands out: rich or poor, a strong vocabulary is the key to success in school and the employment world.

Joe Oswald has a master’s degree in history from DePaul University, a master’s degree in educational administration, endorsements in special education and English as a Second Language, and has over 20 years of experience teaching reading, writing, and standardized test preparation in the Chicago Public Schools. He is the author of Vocabulary for Champions. He has also written a noted history of the historic Beverly Hills/ Morgan Park community in Chicago published by Arcadia Publishing as part of their Images of America series and continues to give presentations to local community groups,