Vocabulary Thread

When we were in school, teachers gave us vocabulary words to learn and memorize, but my children don’t have the same experience. To me, this is an oversight that I wanted to rectify. In this thread, I’m going to describe this process, which has brought to light observations that I wouldn’t mind discussing or at least seems worthy to record. Think: a journal of teaching my children vocabulary.

10 thoughts on “Vocabulary Thread

  1. Dictionary definitions vs. Reid’s

    I recall Mitchell recommending the online Merriam-Webster (M-W) dictionary, so that’s the one I’ve been using (even before this project). However, I sometimes find their definitions worded in an unnecessarily complex and confusing way particularly for my children. In many cases, I feel a need to translate the definition and in some cases I’ve reworded it. (To me, providing a definition that makes sense to my children and can be easily remembered is more important than teaching them a more formal, official definition. I’m curious to hear how others feel about this.) Sometimes I’m dissatisfied with the explicit definition listed. For example, I think of the word “sensibility” to mean one’s predilections, intuitions, cognitive framework towards some endeavor, closely related to the word “approach.” For example, “I really like artists with an avant-garde sensibility.” The M-W provided several definitions, but the one that came closest the meaning I was looking for went like this:

    refined or excessive sensitiveness in emotion and taste with especial responsiveness to the pathetic

    Ugh. That was my reaction. It sort of sounds like what I mean, but I’m not sure. I was so unhappy with M-W definition of sensibility, I went looking for definitions from other dictionaries, and I found one at Cambridge dictionary site that satisfied me:

    an understanding of or ability to decide about what is good or valuable, especially in connection with artistic or social activities:

    That’s closer to my understanding of the word, and maybe it’s probably a better definition than mine. Whether the Cambridge site is reliable or reputable is another question. In looking up other words, they do seem to strive for simpler, easy to understand definitions–although I’ve come across definitions I didn’t care for.

    This raises another question: Maybe many of my definitions have been wrong. Much of my sensibility towards words stems from the way I see them used; the context is a critical part of the my understanding of words. I wonder to what degree professional “definers” think in a similar way. It wouldn’t surprise me if their approach is different. Or maybe the dictionary makers respond much slower to shifts in the way words are used. (shrugs)


    “Concise” is another example of what I meant by a definition that seems too complex. Here are definitions from M-W and Cambridge:


    : marked by brevity of expression or statement : free from all elaboration and superfluous detail


    short and clear, expressing what needs to be said without unnecessary words:

    If I were just looking up the word, the M-W definition is clear, and I actually prefer it to the Cambridge definition because it excludes clarity, which seems more appropriate. (The phrase “clear and concise” is common and as far as I know, it’s not redundant. If so, that would mean concise refers to statements “marked by brevity” but not necessarily clear. On the other hand, I do think that clarity is closely associated with concision–but maybe that’s because “clear and concise” is such a common phrase.

    (On a side note, M-W seems to like using the phrase “marked by” to define adjectives. With my children, I tend to think this is confusing; I’m not sure if they fully understand it. When I define adjectives to them, I often find myself starting with “that which has the quality of” or something to that effect.)

    Anyway, the Cambridge definition is more simplistic, and maybe not as precise, but I think my children will find it more pellucid and easier to remember.

    1. To be clear, my favorite of the normal dictionaries is the American Heritage Dictionary (in its fifth edition), which Jill this morning reminded me I gave her for her high school graduation present. I gave it to a lot of people but totally forgot she was one of them. 🙂

      I use the m-w the most because it’s easiest to look words up when I’m in front of a computer. I hit ctrl-L to highlight the address bar in my browser. I type m-w.com/dictionary/WORD and I go right to the entry. It’s the most convenient for my style of working online. Alternately, I hit ctrl-L, then type “m-w” and some url pops up I’ve already looked at. Then I hit right-arrow to unhighlight the address, then backspace over the WORD and type in the word I’m looking for.

      I do like the supplementary info m-w gives following the entries, and their videos and podcast (Word Matters) are a lot of fun and super informative.

    2. To be clear, my favorite of the normal dictionaries is the American Heritage Dictionary (in its fifth edition)…

      Oh, shoot. So you didn’t recommend the M-W to me?

      1. If I recommended it, it was specifically for its online edition and its ease of use. I prefer the AHD.

  2. debase vs. abase

    I’m having trouble knowing when to use one or the other. My guess is that “abase” is used more commonly in reference to one’s self–e.g., doing something that abases one’s self. On the other hand, my sense is that “debase” can refer to one’s self or other persons or things. I have no idea if this is correct.

    I also don’t care for the definitions in M-W and Cambridge (particularly within the context of using them to teach my children).


    M-W: “formal : to lower in rank, office, prestige, or esteem”
    C: “to make yourself seem to be less important or to not deserve respect”


    M-W: “to lower in status, esteem, quality, or character”
    C: “to reduce the quality or value of something”

    What I think is missing is the idea of moving or reverting to one’s baser instincts. (By the way, the M-W definition of “base” in this sense is “lacking or indicating the lack of higher qualities of mind or spirit : IGNOBLE.” To me, this definition also seems inadequate as well. It’s not wrong, but when I think of “base” in this sense I think of more animalistic part of humanity. I Or, to use Freudian terminology, to lean more to one’s id than ego. I also associate “base” with depravity or moral degradation. Therefore, debase has the flavor of degrading in a moral sense.)

    But I think I’m probably thinking of the definition too specifically. The definitions above seem broader, and maybe that’s more appropriate. (I know that “debase” can also be used in the context of currency–i.e., lowering it’s value.)


    I wasn’t satisfied the M-W and Cambridge definitions of “eloquent.”


    1. marked by forceful and fluent expression; 2: vividly or movingly expressive or revealing


    giving a clear, strong message

    In these definitions, “forceful” and “strong” surprised me. I don’t think this is wrong, but to me the key ideas for eloquence are fluency and “vividly and movingly expressive or revealing.” Also, my sense is eloequence is almost always used to describe langauge.

    1. Debase and abase seem to be synonyms to me. I think of them the same way. I did a Google search for abase vs debase and couldn’t find an especially trustworthy site but the couple of sites I clicked seem to agree with me.

    2. Here’s what the American Heritage Dictionary says:

      Synonyms: debase, degrade, abase, demean2
      These verbs mean to lower in character or quality. Debase implies reduction in quality or value: “debasing the moral currency” (George Eliot).
      Degrade implies reduction to a state of shame or disgrace: “If I pitied you for crying … you should spurn such pity…. Rise, and don’t degrade yourself into an abject reptile!” (Emily BrontĂ«).
      Abase refers principally to loss of rank or prestige: “Meg pardoned him, and Mrs. March’s grave face relaxed … when she heard him declare that he would … abase himself like a worm before the injured damsel” (Louisa May Alcott).
      Demean suggests lowering in social position: “It puts him where he can make the advances without demeaning himself” (William Dean Howells). See Also Synonyms at corrupt.

  3. I wouldn’t call not teaching actual vocabulary lessons an oversight. It’s a difference in philosophy and there’s a fair reason for it. Rote memorization is kind of a lousy way to learn words, especially if your goal is retention, which it should be. When I taught at HBA, we did do formal vocab lessons in vocab books with weekly testing, but we only counted the vocab category as 10 percent of a quarter grade. Just because there’s so much to teach and teaching lists of words didn’t feel like the best use of our time.

    HOWEVER, it’s is absolutely true that vocabulary and language development are inseparable, and that language development and all other kinds of learning are inseparable. Because at my last school I mostly taught students who had language-based learning differences, a structured, formal study of vocabulary was necessary. Language acquisition through more organic means just doesn’t work for students like mine: they needed formal study of roots, prefixes, suffixes, and other phonetic skills in order to learn words and their meanings.

    So while I am on your side about vocab, I also know it’s really tough to build that into an English curriculum. Man, English teachers have to teach language, reading, composition, and literature all in one section of school. Remember when we took AP Bio and we had to use two class periods for it per day? I often feel like English should be treated like that at every level.

    I will also add that you may have been the rare student for whom rote memorization actually worked. When Grace copied those vocab words off a poster in Liliha Library (“100 words every American should know”) or something like that and went through the lists with each of us, I was most confident in my answers and got the lowest score. You got the highest score.

    1. I wouldn’t call not teaching actual vocabulary lessons an oversight. It’s a difference in philosophy and there’s a fair reason for it.

      I think this is fair point. I’m sympathetic to the amount of content English teachers (or teachers in general) have to teach. And maybe if I had a good understanding of the required breadth of information, vocabulary would be a lower priority for me.

      Rote memorization is kind of a lousy way to learn words, especially if your goal is retention, which it should be.

      In addition to having my kids write out the definitions and memorize them, I’m also having them write sentences, which I check. I also try to use the words in normal conversation as much as possible. (Aside: My son didn’t go to summer school this year, so I chose vocabulary as something to work on. I’m not sure if this was the best use of his time, but it was something I felt capable of doing. I also had him do some writing.)

      Having said, I feel like the lack of vocabulary assignments for my children is an oversight. They’re not doing enough reading, and when they do, I don’t think they’re looking up words they don’t know.

      Because of that, I do think spending on expanding their vocabulary is worth it.

      I often feel like English should be treated like that at every level.

      Writing should be incorporated in the other subjects, especially history/social studies. This may be unrealistic, but I would prefer if all the teachers could be competent at writing and also teaching it, at least to some degree.

      I will also add that you may have been the rare student for whom rote memorization actually worked.

      At some point, at least by college, in addition to looking up words, I started writing sentences and trying to use them in every day conversation. So I didn’t just memorize the meanings of words, for what it’s worth.

      (On a side note, I wasn’t a good student, but it did bother me when I encountered words I didn’t understand. That is, I wouldn’t want to gloss over these words; I’d have a desire to look them up. My kids are not like this. They seem comfortable to move on without knowing the meanings of these words.)

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