How Are They Supposed to Know That?

An academic friend of some distinction responded to the comments about readers’ limitations in Vocabulary (i.e., Big) Words with a report from his university.

During the past twenty years I have had to stop in the middle of lectures and ask — and this means singling out various random individuals — whether they have understood what I have been saying.  In every instance I shall have used half a dozen words that no one in the class can define or even give a close approximation to.  Most of these words occur in the reading assignment for the day.  Even if they have “read” the assignment, they have not bothered to look up the words they don’t know.

In a class for upper-level English majors, he said, he taught John Donne’s “A Valediction: forbidding mourning” and very students knew the word or looked it up.

It never occurred to them that reading an assignment means looking up the words you don’t know — even words in the title.  Over the last five to ten years, I have been including in my syllabus a warning that reading means looking up the meanings of unfamiliar words.

In the ’70s and ’80s anthologies and student texts of Donne did not gloss “Valediction”; now they do (see recent editions of The Norton Anthology).  But this hardly does any good.  A few years ago I gave a quiz on the reading assignment on Herrick’s poetry (remember, this is an upper-level course for English majors).  My first question was, “What is the meaning of Herrick’s title, Hesperides?”

Most students missed this question, and I expressed surprise and disappointment.  “How were we supposed to know that?” one indignant young lady complained.  “It’s in the note at the beginning of the selection,” I pointed out, now without some exasperation.  “You didn’t tell us to read the notes,” was her indignant reply.  No one laughed.  I now include in my syllabus the warning that “reading” the assignment includes reading the introductory material and footnotes.

Words they don’t know, “big words,” are “vocabulary words,” because that is how they cram for standardized tests, with lists of words rather than learning them the natural way by reading.

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