NCTE and Vocabulary – A Rant

“FREE Vocabulary Resources!”

“Do you know these 100 words? You should!”

Everywhere I looked in the exhibit hall at this year’s 2010 National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) conference, I either saw mice (ok, well, we were in Disney World…) or exhibits hawking wares to teach vocabulary.

I teach first-year composition at a mid-size research-intensive university in the southeast. At the beginning of each semester, I ask my students, most of them fresh from high school, to tell me what they hope to learn in the class.

The last couple of years, almost all of my students have said they wanted to improve their vocabularies. While over the years that I have been teaching first-year composition courses, I have had many students who NEEDED to improve their vocabularies, it was a rare student who included this as what they hoped to learn in a college course.

I have always had students who came to college with their brand new copy of Roget’s Thesaurus, or, more recently, their online bookmarks (far fewer brought a dictionary—thank goodness for!), I had never heard so many students concerned with knowing more words.

Thinking back to my own educational experience, I remember “vocabulary words” in grammar school, but not much after that. Many textbooks in middle and high school did contain glossaries, of course, where students could look up words/terms they didn’t know. And we were encouraged to look up words we didn’t know in other reading as well, or, occasionally, someone would actually ask the teacher what a word meant, or the teacher would define terms s/he was using in class discussions.

Now, suddenly, vocabulary building seems to be among the most important features of K-12 English instruction???

OK, so it only took me a few minutes to figure out where this is coming from (yes, I know, I’m a little slow sometimes…).

Can you say, “standardized testing”?

SATs and other standardized tests, as I vaguely recall, do ask for students to match definitions and words, so vocabulary is something that these tests measure. While I haven’t looked at how our students fare on this particular item, someone somewhere must be looking. So, I presume, students are not faring well on vocabulary.

But do we really, really need to focus on memorizing vocabulary words and definitions in our classrooms? Wouldn’t it make a bit more sense to focus on reading, writing, and (especially) critical thinking skills—and help students to understand any terms they encounter along the way—instead?

Well, I guess the moral here is that, if you want to make money, develop teaching materials for vocabulary building so that teachers can teach to the tests. It’s all the rage!

But, if you want our students to think, to be appropriately critical, to …. Well, I guess we all know that the test-givers aren’t interested. L

Ok, so, had to rant.

–verb (used without object)
1. to speak or declaim extravagantly or violently; talk in a wild or vehement way; rave: The demagogue ranted for hours.
–verb (used with object)
2. to utter or declaim in a ranting manner.
3. ranting, extravagant, or violent declamation.
4. a ranting utterance.
1590–1600; < D
ranten  (obs.) to talk foolishly
(Copied and pasted from 

Nuff said!



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s