Building vocab is like putting money in the bank

A metaphor for vocabulary that I constantly return to, in spite of the fact that that I know it’s bad for me, is the bag of counters. When I’m thinking this way, I imagine each of my students as carrying around with them a black bag of counters, and each of those counters is a word that they know. I imagine them playing a game, in which they must place a counter on a board to match some symbol underneath. The more counters they have, the more they can play – the more meanings they can ‘cover’. And the more they can play, the more they can win. I imagine myself as the game’s banker, handing out the counters to the lucky competitors. The more I can get in their bags, the better they’ll do in the game. I imagine lessons and units as planned counter-distribution events. The students enter the room with so many counters in their bags, and they leave each time with just a few more. Aren’t I a whiz teacher!?

Perhaps the appeal of this analogy is it makes language sounds like money, and we are taught, are we not, to accumulate this like there’s no tomorrow? Indeed, a host of metaphors seems to draw connections between these two fundamental social conventions, language and money: we coin a new word, we discover a word hoard, we trade on our vocabulary, we steal words, borrow them and invest in them. Some children are described as word-rich, others as word-poor. Quite what the sociological implications of this might be I shall leave to others to consider, but it suffices to say here only that the counter analogy of vocabulary (and probably of money too, actually…) is muddled, misleading, and, if you excuse the pun, pretty counter-productive.

Word meaning is complicated, and it is so from the very start. It is tempting to think that the complexities of vocabulary learning are confined to the difficult, ‘academic’ language which teachers tackle in secondary school. But in fact, from the very beginning, we learn words with multiple meanings, as well as words that are used metaphorically. Very small children can be heard, for example, uttering clauses of the following sort – I have bolded the vocabulary item that demonstrates the point:

1. I have a big problem

2. That cat is big!

3. The tv is on

4. My men are on the table

5. His hair went grey

5. Daddy went to the shops.

Evidently, polysemy – the notion that words have more than one meaning, and that context is crucial is fixing this meaning – is baked into language from the start. The informal and implicit processes and structures that underpin language acquisition – whether genetic or social – are clearly set up to handle it, since the vast majority of children, no matter how sophisticated their speech when they come to school, are clearly capable of handling the kind of distinctions illustrated in these examples. 

Polysemy means that acquiring vocab can’t be just like acquiring counters, since the same word can serve to ‘cover’ more than one square on the grid. As we may have gained one of those meanings but not the other, the analogy gets itself into a real mess explaining whether the counter is in the bag or it isn’t. Even more importantly, polysemy also suggests that, since definitive word meaning is activated only in a particular context, words should not be imagined as smoothly finished, independent discs, jostling about in the bag in austere independence of each other. Rather, they are incomplete fragments of broader structures, waiting to be granted the full possibility of meaning that comes from linking them up with other elements. If they are like that, is becomes increasingly difficult to think that they could ever be distributed neatly in a five-per-lesson revenue stream, no matter how cashed-up the teacher-banker might be.

Perhaps the analogy could be recovered by ditching the counters and going straight for the meanings on the squares? Maybe it’s the actual senses that we ‘acquire’ one by one – and those are the true stuff of the teacher-accountant’s educational Eldorado? At this suggestion, things start to get somewhat dizzyingly philosophical, for it becomes quite hard to distinguish meaning from the word that seems to point to it. Most philosophers of language would these days be sceptical of the idea that meanings sit about in the ether, just waiting for words to be linked up to them. Apart from anything else, such a model would make explaining the existence of multiple languages a complex and potentially chauvinistic business: each group of language speakers might be inclined to argue that the inventory of possible meanings aligns perfectly with the words of their language. The irresistible conclusion is that meaning, like the language it is bound up with, is of a fragmented, provisional nature, and so just as resistant to counting. 

I’m not sure that there’s much hope for the counter analogy, but in case you still feel yourself irresistibly drawn to it, consider this sentence,  one which I, my nine year old son, and, I imagine, the professor of English medieval history at Harvard would assent to:

In 1066, William the First became the first Norman king of England.

Now, do all three of us all have the counter ‘king’ in our bag? Well, clearly it seems that on one level we do. We are each able to understand this sentence, to assent to it, and, if pointed to the word ‘king’ in particular, provide an explanation of what it means. But we all three of use have a quite different understanding of what ‘king’  means here – in this precise context. My son thinks of someone in charge who wears a crown. I, with my moderate grasp of social history, am able to grasp a more complex set of ideas about an individual’s position in early feudal society, the rights and responsibilities they held, the checks on their power, their inter-dependence with the church, and so on. And the professor no doubt would have an understanding of what it meant for someone to be a king in 1066 that would far exceed mine in both scope and precision.

Faced with the choice of teaching my son the word ‘monarch’ and teaching him to understand ‘king’ better, I think I would generally go for the latter, for this would open up a richer historically understanding that is what academic study is ultimately about. Naturally, I would like him to know ‘monarch’ too, but a deeper, rather than broader, vocabulary is more important in understanding the way educated people talk about the world. Vocabulary building in its fullest sense is, I would argue,  at least 75% of the work of teaching the humanities, but it is as much about deepening our understanding of what may be meant by simple words as it is adding new ones to the mix. It is also, and here certain folk are liable to start feeling even more wobbly, about coming to recognise that the meaning of words is frequently contested: people frequently disagree about what even quite common words mean (if you’re sceptical, try asking two professors of medieval history to explain exactly what ‘king’ meant in 1066). Highly literate users of language know and understand this, and they bring this understanding to their reading. Some at least of this complexity also an important factor in the natural sciences: my nine-year old ‘knows’ the words ‘gravity’ and ‘cell’, but is a long way from knowing those words in the way I would like him to when he leaves school.

Attempts to explicitly teach new words as if handing out gold coins to the masses are thus bound to become a little ridiculous. This doesn’t mean that explicit vocabulary teaching is a total waste of time (though it is worth pointing that the celebrated ‘National Reading Panel Report’, commissioned by the American Congress, found that most ‘school’ vocabulary could and would be learnt informally in context – just as ‘non-school’ vocabulary is). Nor does it mean that drawing up lists is altogether out: in fact, a carefully considered list of words, along with some target (and not ‘ultimate’) meanings is a far better way of planning a curriculum than fixating on that pair of fractious old bogey men, Knowledge and Skills.

What does need to happen, however, is the standing-down of all those over-excited spreadsheet bandits. Producing great lists of words and calculating how many need to be learnt per month, per year and per school-life is the stuff of the counter analogy – it only makes sense if you think it’s possible – or desirable – to spill out the bag on the table and count how many you’ve got.

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