A fascinating article by E.D. Hirsch in this past winter’s City Journal explores the link between vocabulary and success in academics and life in general.  Hirsch demonstrates that a large vocabulary is the key difference between “advantaged” and “disadvantaged” students, not just in language arts, but in mastery of the entire curriculum.

Vocabulary is essential because words enable the mind to access and make use of vast stores of knowledge in the “working memory,” which is where problem solving takes place.  Hirsch likens this function to the parentheses and dashes we use to keep phone and social security numbers in our working memory: dividing things into workable chunks helps us to remember, and words are the best “chunking agents” of all.

“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.”

Hirsch argues that our public school system, under the influence of progressive education policy for over a century now, has made the vocabulary gap much worse.  The popularity of hands-on or experience-based learning, and the rejection of factual knowledge or book learning began in the 1950s and 60s corresponds with the dramatic plummet of all 12th grade verbal SAT scores, including those in 98% white, middle class neighborhoods.  The switch to “how-to” curriculum resulted in a massive loss of vocabulary, as children focused less on actual subject matter and more on experience and process.

“How-to-ism has failed because of its fundamental misconception of skills, which considers them analogous to automated processes, such as making a free throw in basketball.  In English class, young children are now practicing soul-deadening how-to exercises like “finding the main idea” in a passage and “questioning the author.”

Back when our schools focused on knowledge instead of study skills, and facts instead of process, the vocabulary gap between advantaged and disadvantaged kids grew smaller as the children got older.  This is no longer the case.  Students who arrive at school with smaller vocabularies fall farther and farther behind their peers, and the vocabulary gap widens.

“Advantaged students who arrive in the classroom with background knowledge and vocabulary will understand what a textbook or teacher is saying and will therefore learn more; disadvantaged students who lack such prior knowledge will fail to understand and thus fall even further behind, relative to their fellow students. This explains why schooling often fails to narrow the gap and may even widen it.”

Hirsch’s long article is a must-read.  For parents, the importance of vocabulary and content-based education suggests that simply talking with and reading to young children is more important than scheduling hands-on experiences or music lessons.  As Hirsch concludes, “such correlations between vocabulary size and life chances are as firm as any correlations in educational research….there’s no better index to accumulated knowledge and general competence than the size of a person’s vocabulary.”