I believe in the value of looking words up in the dictionary.
When I was a third-grader, I was told by my teacher, Shirley Hansen – no relation – to read whatever books I could get my hands on. She didn’t care what grade level, and I don’t remember her ever suggesting there was a section of the library I should wait to explore. “Read anything that appeals to you,” is the message I remember, “and be glad if you come across a word you don’t know because that’s the best way to learn new ones.”
What I didn’t entirely grasp then was the bigger message she was instilling: That in addition to the ideas available in written work, the individual words carry their own precious value. Shirley and others like her taught me that happening upon new words was a large part of what reading was for: Encountering words there on the page where you can see them and view them in a context, look them up if necessary, and then add the valuable new little hunk of language to the bank of words you can call on as your own. She knew the more words her students learned, the more thoughts we could understand, think and express.
I thought about her with gratitude the other day when I was reading Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain by Maryanne Wolf. Wolf talks about a study that showed children in a home environment “rich in oral and written language opportunities” hear 32 million more spoken words by age five, making it possible for them to enter “kindergarten having heard and used thousands of words, whose meanings are already understood, classified, and stored away…” giving them “the advantage on the playing field of education” and therefore in life as a whole. The advantages of a larger exposure to words are so enormous as to make stifling a child’s vocabulary a form of child neglect that will carry detrimental consequences throughout the life of that person.
One of the best ways to become one of the “haves” in terms of a broad vocabulary is to use a dictionary.
Once, when I was working for a television station doing the weekend weather broadcast, I was asked not to use the word “precipitation” because, I was told, “there were probably people who didn’t know what it meant.”
“Wouldn’t they just look it up?” I wondered. I pictured myself being personally responsible for increasing the number of people who wouldn’t know the word if I didn’t use it. As a single parent, I wondered how to square my need to keep the job to support myself and my daughter, with knowing I could be contributing to the decline of vocabulary in the western world.
I talked to my boss, using words and concepts learned from reading, and kept using the word. Did even one person unfamiliar with the word “precipitation” look it up? I have no idea, but I believe it’s possible.
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