Is Telling My Kid What a New Word Means ‘Cheating?’

In a word, no!

Many parents are unaware that studies show that THE BEST WAY to learn new vocabulary words is through talk with an adult, NOT the dictionary.  Many classroom teachers do assign vocabulary lists for homework, and they may require students to copy down dictionary definitions.  This work is often followed up with a quiz, requiring kids to match definitions and words.  This is a simple way to expose students to new vocabulary, but it is not particularly helpful in boosting a child’s expressive vocabulary, while only superficially (and perhaps temporarily) expanding her receptive vocabulary.

Receptive vocabulary is our ability to comprehend a word  in context, either in conversation or in reading.  Expressive vocabulary includes those words we use conversationally and in our own writing.  Naturally, one’s receptive vocabulary is larger than one’s expressive vocabulary.  Both, however, become robust through years of formal education and through consistent exposure to high level reading and talk.  The problem is that dictionary definitions are themselves difficult to understand, especially for kids.  Furthermore, the dictionary is not a person.  People can easily (and interestingly) explain the differences in tone and meaning between similar words, while dictionaries merely list synonyms that are not truly interchangeable.  Take, for exampe, the words generous and magnanimous.  Generous connotes a willingness to give of oneself, and carries the meaning of being willing to donate or give money to those in need.  Magnanimous carries the connotation of being generous with oneself, one’s reputation, time and influence.  These shades of meaning and subtle differences in usage are BEST conveyed through talk and example.

So, a robust vocabulary curriculum at any grade level should include lots of talk and synonym posters around the classroom.  Kids delight in learning new words and in understanding shades of meaning, but almost always find classroom vocabulary learning dull.  Yet a strong expressive vocabulary is absolutely necessary for college-level writing, and a strong receptive vocabulary is necessary regardless of a student’s field of study.

So, yes, yes, yes!  Even if your kid has to copy out dictionary definitions for homework, talk about his word list, and help him understand the connotations of synonyms.  Kids, especially teenagers, love learning about shades of meaning and nuances of words.  Talking about words and modeling how adults think about meaning has the added benefit of lessening the anxiety older kids often feel about appearing foolish or ignorant when they do not know a word.  When adults share their word knowledge freely kids learn the joy of finding just the right word to express their thoughts in both speech and writing.




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