Larry Efird: Vocabulary is good for the soul
Whenever I tell someone I teach English, I realize I’m not exactly telling them the whole truth. That’s because I also teach spelling, literature, poetry, grammar, writing, research, and vocabulary. Any English teacher knows what I’m talking about. We’re not complaining when we go to the trouble to delineate our content area—because we love our subject. It’s just that we always struggle to cover all the bases in one semester. Most of us teach more of one thing than the other, but all of us teach all of these topics in one way or another.
Over the years, I’ve struggled with the most effective way to teach vocabulary, because I’ve realized students don’t really remember words they memorize for a quiz or test more than a few weeks after the assessment. Even young minds suffer from an over absorption of facts and knowledge. Yet, I still enjoy giving them a vocabulary word or two each day as a part of their daily focus, and I usually try to tie it into the lesson for the day somehow so that the word is more like an Amtrak train on which they hop aboard, rather than a freight train zipping by in the night never to be seen or heard again.
I also like to use words from our reading in context so they can see that real people do use these words in real life, and that they actually mean something to the human race. But sometimes, the word I end up teaching is not even the one I had planned, and ironically it actually remains with the students much longer than the one I had prescribed for the lesson. Such was the case last year, when we were reviewing a chapter in the novel A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini, which we had read the previous week. I asked if anyone could quickly provide a short synopsis of the prior chapter for the class, since we had enjoyed a long weekend, and some of the students no doubt had forgotten what had happened in the story—as always.
Without hesitation, one young man responded by blurting out to the class that the two main characters finally “had sex.” He was technically correct, and although his description was accurate, I was suddenly caught off guard by his matter of fact answer, so I countered his comment by saying, “Yes, they did consummate their relationship.” Without delay, a young lady in the class quickly asked me, “What does consummate mean?” My intent was to be somewhat vague but also to get the point across, so I said, “When I was young, most people waited until they were married to consummate their relationship.” The same girl then responded by saying, “Well, Mr. Efird, today people are consummating all over the place!”
After twenty of us laughed together for about one minute without stopping, we continued with the lesson, but I marveled once again how kids are amazing, even in the midst of learning vocabulary and reviewing a chapter from a routine reading assignment. You never quite know what’s going on in those teenage minds, but when they give you a glimpse, you’re glad you got to be there.
On another occasion, when going over classroom decorum and etiquette, I asked the students to take their trips to the bathroom judiciously. After one student asked what judicious meant, another one asserted his own understanding of the term by saying, “He wants you to hold it!” I couldn’t have said it better myself.
As William Wordsworth would say, “My heart leaps up…” when I see that the majority of the class can correctly use a new word that we learned during the week in a sentence or on a quiz. But perhaps the most rewarding part of teaching vocabulary words—both intended and non-intended—is watching a student’s face when she understands how to effectively use a new-found term. It’s as if she made a new friend for life. And in a world where people are “consummating all over the place,” maybe someone will realize that knowing when and where to be judicious just might be a good thing.
Larry Efird teaches at A.L. Brown High School in Kannapolis.