Should parents and teachers dumb down vocabulary?


No, Don’t!

The Vocabulary Debacle

Today, while teaching a group of 4th- 6th graders fables and fairy tales, I said to the class, “If you have a sibling in the class you may only take one package of seeds. You may share with your sibling.” I heard a murmur, “What’s a sibling?” I explained that a sibling is a brother or sister and gave examples. Because the class didn’t know a simple word like sibling, the experience got me thinking about the impact of dumbing down vocabulary.

The following is shocking but not surprising news:

  • An analysis of 800 school books published between 1919 and 1991 found the difficulty of the text had been significantly reduced.”-American Educator.

  • High school students are reading at a 5th grade level”– Research 2014.

  • Many newspapers and magazines are written to a 9th grade level ( Yikes! That means many high school students aren’t able to read the newspaper. Is this a result of the text book level being reduced?)

  • According to research, one in five adults can’t read the newspaper.

These statistics are reality and a result of dumbing down vocabulary. What do we do about it? Do the following instead.

Few activities are as delightful as learning new vocabulary. ~ Tim Gunn


  • Use higher level vocabulary when speaking.  vocab 2

We all learn based on experience. Our children/students are no different. Thus, use higher level vocabulary words when speaking to them such as edifice. Then, explain it is a building. Explain language. (When you explain the meaning of words and use them regularly in context, there is no need to dumb down vocabulary.) This gives your children/students a foundation for reading and reading comprehension.  Then when they get stuck on an unknown word while they are reading, they’ll figure it out based on context. They will be able to do this better than others, because of their exposure to upper-level language.

  • Read classic literature such as Huckleberry Finn, The Little Prince, The Chronicles of Narnia, etc. The classics are great books to read aloud to your children if they aren’t ready to read them alone. They are filled with words like arduous, edifice, and erudite.  These books will expand your children’s vocabulary.

The most important thing is to read as much as you can, like I did. It will give you an understanding of what makes good writing and it will enlarge your vocabulary. ~ J.K. Rowling

  • Watch shows on channels like P.B.S. that are language rich.

  • Teach vocabulary in context. This gives greater meaning than learning vocabulary in isolation. Learning vocabulary in context helps students make connections. Our brain works best with patterns and practical applications of newly learned material; thus, learning in context is best. To me, teaching vocabulary out of context is quixotic.  (Yes, I used that word on purpose to show new vocabulary is learned in context when it isn’t our everyday vocabulary. 🙂 )

    When my youngest son was 4 years old, he came home from Montessori preschool explaining all the functions of the esophagus. I was stunned that he could pronounce the word as well as understand what it meant. He was introduced to the word in context. (A picture book and his own body) The teacher explained the meaning of the word; thus, he grabbed a hold of the word like any common word such as sit.

    Like previously stated, one’s time is better spent learning in context: reading, speaking, writing, and listening.

  • Explain any unknown words. (When you see a fake smile and a glazed over look on a child’s/student’s face also known as “the deer in the headlights look”, stop and explain the meaning of the word just used.) vo discussions4learning

  • Allow children to use Post-It notes (sticky notes) to mark unknown words as they read. Later, they go look them up or ask someone to explain them.

  • Continue to seek out language rich events like productions at the local theater.

  • Go on nature walks.  Getting out doors expands children’s vocabulary.  I was reading with a child about leaves crunching and rustling.  The child didn’t understand what those words meant because they had never walked on leaves.  Thus, getting outside creates experiences for your children to expand their vocabulary which increases their reading comprehension.  (You guessed it.  I took the child outside to jump in some leaves.  He will never forget the words: crunching and rustling leaves.  🙂 ) 

  • Visit museums and parks.

  • Play games such as Scrabble, Apples to Apples, and Boggle.   (These games are rich in language leading to developing an extensive vocabulary. Now, I know it is hard to get boys to play these games. I raised boys that didn’t want to play these games. Instead, they preferred to play with their Lego blocks and strategy games; however, we played these games anyway, because momma knows best. 🙂 )  voca scrabble

So even when words are arduous, your children/students will have more than a rudimentary language experience. They’ll revere words and have optimum comprehension with a soaring reading level, because you didn’t dumb down vocabulary. Who wouldn’t want that?


Photo Credit:  1.  2.  3.  4.