Successful Students Have Wealth of Words

The bell had just rung, and school was over for another day. Loud, excited voices filled the hallway, so I didn’t even hear someone enter my recently abandoned classroom.

“Hi, Mrs. Shalaway.”

I turned to see a student who had graduated more than three years ago. I love to visit with former students, and this young man was no exception. Not only was it wonderful to witness what a confident, well-grounded individual he had become, it was a major “shot in the arm” to have him thank me for preparing him so well for college.

Like others before him, he talked about how much writing he did in all of his classes, not just English class. He acknowledged that essays and research papers constitute much of what he produces in school as an engineering major.

But I was especially struck by his comments about vocabulary.

“I never understood why we had to learn all those big words in your class,” he told me, explaining that he thought if he used those words in his community, no one would understand what he was talking about, and if he used those words in college, people would think he was showing off.

“But I soon found out that that’s how all of the professors talk.”

Like most students, this very bright young man didn’t need to use an extensive vocabulary in high school, so he didn’t. But he had learned that outside of the insulated world of his childhood, educated people routinely use educated language. To succeed, he had to speak the same language.

In a Winter 2013 issue of City Journal (, E.D. Hirsch Jr., founder of the CORE curriculum project, claims that not only is a large vocabulary a good indicator of intelligence, it is also the key to raising socio-economic status. To be successful academically and financially, says Hirsch, students need “a wealth of words.”

As Hirsch explains, “There’s a positive correlation between a student’s vocabulary size in grade 12, the likelihood that she will graduate from college, and her future level of income.” Other researchers note the same correlations. The reason for this correlation is clear, says Hirsch: “Vocabulary size is a convenient proxy for a whole range of educational attainments and abilities -not just skill in reading, writing, listening, and speaking but also general knowledge of science, history and the arts. If we want to reduce economic inequality in America, a good place to start is the language-arts classroom.”

Studying vocabulary is important for developing this “wealth of words.” But so is reading. Prolific readers develop large vocabularies by reading complex material.

Yet today’s students have poorer vocabularies than ever, Hirsch claims. He cites the steady decline of verbal SAT scores since 1967 and quotes Cornell scholar Donald Hayes who found that “a dumbing-down of American schoolbooks” was to blame. Influenced by some educational theorists, textbook publishers, according the Hayes, began using “simplified language and smaller vocabularies,” and this accounts for most of the declines in verbal test scores.

The new Common Core standards stress vocabulary development. Hirsch advocates a strategy he calls “content-based instruction,” where children are immersed in a subject area and encouraged to develop vocabulary in context. (Read more about it in the website listed above.)

Parents, too, can enhance their children’s “wealth of words.” They can encourage more and higher-level reading, provide crossword puzzles and other word games, and promote the use of a word journal to record new words encountered. For more ideas, see

– Linda Shalaway is a National Board-certified teacher and author of “Learning to Teach … Not Just for Beginners” (Scholastic, 2005). She teaches at Cameron High School.