Thursday, January 31, 2013

Word Power

Want to do better on your SATs, improve your chances of making more money and having a successful career? According to educational expert E.D. Hirsch one very good way to do all of that is to set out now to improve your vocabulary.

Hirsch notes the decline in verbal SAT performance over the last 40 years, ties it to "dumbed down" textbooks, and shows a correlation between that decline and increasing income inequality in our society. Educators, he argues, need to do more to help students enhance their vocabularies which he sees as a major key to future success. Here's an important part of his message:
There’s a well-established correlation between a college degree and economic benefit. And for guidance on what helps students finish college and earn more income, we should consider the SAT, whose power to predict graduation rates is well documented. The way to score well on the SAT—at least on the verbal SAT—is to have a large vocabulary. As the eminent psychologist John Carroll once observed, the verbal SAT is essentially a vocabulary test.

So 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. The reason is clear: 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.

Early in the twentieth century, a well-meant but inadequate conception of education became dominant in the United States. It included optimism about children’s natural development, a belief in the unimportance of factual knowledge and book learning, and a corresponding belief in the importance of training the mind through hands-on practical experience. In the 1920s and 1930s, these ideas began spreading to teacher-training institutions. It took two or three decades for the new teachers and administrators to take over from the old and for the new ideas to revolutionize schoolbooks and classroom practices. The first students to undergo this new schooling therefore began kindergarten in the 1950s and arrived in 12th grade in the 1960s.

From 1945 to 1967, 12th-graders’ verbal scores on the SAT and other tests had risen. But then those scores plummeted. Cornell economist John Bishop wrote in the 1980s of “the historically unprecedented nature of the test score decline that began around 1967. Prior to that year test scores had been rising steadily for 50 years.” The scores reached their nadir around 1980 and have remained low ever since.

Later, another Cornell scholar, the sociologist Donald Hayes, showed that the decline of the verbal SAT scores was indeed correlated with a dumbing-down of American schoolbooks. Following the lead of the great literacy scholar Jeanne Chall, Hayes found that publishers, under the influence of progressive educational theories, had begun to use simplified language and smaller vocabularies. Hayes demonstrated that the dilution of knowledge and vocabulary, rather than poverty, explained most of the test-score drop.

Such correlations between vocabulary size and life chances are as firm as any correlations in educational research. Of course, vocabulary isn’t perfectly correlated with knowledge. People with similar vocabulary sizes may vary significantly in their talent and in the depth of their understanding. Nonetheless, there’s no better index to accumulated knowledge and general competence than the size of a person’s vocabulary. Simply put: knowing more words makes you smarter. And between 1962 and the present, a big segment of the American population began knowing fewer words, getting less smart, and becoming demonstrably less able to earn a high income.

Why should vocabulary size be related to achieved intelligence and real-world competence? Though the intricate details of cognitive abilities are under constant study and refinement, it’s possible to give a rough answer. The space where we solve our problems is called “working memory.” For everyone, even geniuses, it’s a small space that can hold only a few items in suspension for only a few seconds. If one doesn’t make the right connections within that space, one has to start over again. Hence, one method for coping and problem solving is to reduce the number of items that one has to make sense of at any moment. The psychologist George A. Miller called that process “chunking.” Telephone numbers and Social Security numbers are good examples. The number (212) 374-5278, written in three chunks, is a lot easier to cope with than 2123745278.

Words are fantastically effective chunking devices. Suppose you put a single item into your working memory — say, “Pasteur.” So long as you hold in your long-term memory a lot of associations with that name, you don’t need to dredge them up and try to cram them into your working memory. The name serves as a brief proxy for whatever aspects will turn out to be needed to cope with your problem. The more readily available such proxies are for you, the better you will be at dealing with various problems. Extend this example to whole spheres of knowledge and experience, and you’ll realize that a large vocabulary is a powerful coping device that enhances one’s general cognitive ability.
Hirsch goes on to discuss why the way students have been taught in the U.S. since the late 60s stifles the development of a powerful vocabulary and offers a number of suggestions for reform. It's a good article for anyone looking to make him or herself more marketable, as well as for those contemplating a career in primary education, or anyone concerned with the disparity between the "haves and the have-nots" in our society.