The Vocabulary Crisis: How to Fix It

Ian MacInnes, Department of English

February 27, 2018

Our students’ vocabularies inform both who they are and who they can be. Evidence suggests, however, that our students are reading less, hearing less conversation, and bringing a smaller vocabulary to college.1

Most of us already have techniques we use for promoting vocabulary learning, but we generally direct these at our field-specific terminology. We need to be more self-conscious about the other kind of vocabulary, the kind we used to presume students learned on their own. Here are some practical steps.

  1. We will need to resist the natural pressure to simplify our language to make ourselves understood; instead, we need to use a deliberately rich vocabulary. It is especially useful if we employ words drawn from the reading. When we do so, we give students the auditory cues that can cement vocabulary learning. We also embed the vocabulary in a more accessible context, informed by things like body language and gesture.

  2. We need to be more thoughtful about the way we use words that may be unfamiliar, deliberately introducing more synonyms, explanations, repetition, and circumlocution. In this way students who are reluctant to announce their ignorance get a graceful way to learn what we mean (and learn words at the same time).

  3. We will need to ask students more often to recast textual information in their own words, not only through the more traditional means of formal paraphrasing and summary but also verbally and on the spot. This process of “recoding” has been shown to be crucial to creating vocabulary memory.2 In a discussion it may mean slowing things down and resisting the impulse to move constantly forward.

  4. We need to encourage students to play with new words. Word games are some of the easiest playful activities to include in the classroom. We should consider adding ordinary words from the reading to these games. We don’t need to be game-creators to do this. Many commercial word games can be easily adapted to our content. A good example is the 2016 Game of the Year (Spiel des Jahres): Codenames.

  5. We need to think carefully about how to assess and reward ordinary vocabulary gains. Since the number of words encountered over a semester can run into many thousands, traditional methods won’t help. Instead we should consider adding explicit categories for precise and appropriate word choice to our evaluation of written and oral work. We can also reward thoughtful attention to words by calling attention to and praising the way students phrase in-class comments.

No matter what field we are in, we need to model for students an excitement in words and language and allow them to experience the power that comes from fitting a new word to a new situation. If we are inclined to be pessimistic or to lament the decay of learning, we should take heart. Research tells us that language is hard-wired in the human brain.3 We have biology on our side.

(For more on the vocabulary crisis, see Ian’s post on the GLCA/GLAA CTL website.)

1 Tom Nicholson and Sue Dymock, Teaching Reading Vocabulary (NZCER Press, 2017). “To Read or Not To Read: A Question of National Consequence” (National Endowment for the Arts, 2007).
2 Marilee Sprenger, How To Teach So Students Remember (Alexandria, Va: Assn for Supervision & Curriculum, 2005).
3 Many researchers have contributed to this claim. One recent source is Iris Berent et al., “Language Universals Engage Broca’s Area,” PLOS ONE 9, no. 4 (April 17, 2014): e95155,