Reducing Economic Inequality with Words

In the City Journal, E. D. Hirsch, Jr., a professor emeritus of education and humanities at the University of Virginia, writes about the correlation between economic inequality and the breadth of vocabulary knowledge learned in school:

There’s a well-established correlation between a college degree and economic benefit. And for guidance on what helps students finish college and earn more income, we should consider the SAT, whose power to predict graduation rates is well documented. The way to score well on the SAT—at least on the verbal SAT—is to have a large vocabulary. As the eminent psychologist John Carroll once observed, the verbal SAT is essentially a vocabulary test.

So there’s a positive correlation between a student’s vocabulary size in grade 12, the likelihood that she will graduate from college, and her future level of income. 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.

This, of course, means more than giving students lists of words to memorize just so they can score well on tests, but introducing words through different contexts in the curriculum so that they unconsciously retain the information (“The fastest way to learn words is to learn about things—and to do it systematically”). Having a good vocabulary strengthens reading comprehension, which is an important skill to have in any subject that requires a textbook. I don’t think anyone doubts that, or the idea that, as Horace Mann put it more than 150 years ago, education is a great equalizer.

Of course, none of this is easy in practice. Education cannot be an equalizer when the quality of education varies so drastically in different schools, in different communities, and among the haves and have-nots. For an example, see this really great Reuters package:

“We’re very fortunate that we’re rather affluent,” she said. “We have more opportunities, more technology, more classes and more teachers.”

Photo: kubosh


4 Comments / Post A Comment

julebsorry (#1,572)

Wow, I personally think vocabulary is a terrible indicator by itself. Vocabulary size is pretty much just correlated with economic status – wealthier kids are likely to be exposed to role models that are educated, well-read people with more-varied vocabularies.

Also, I have a ridiculous vocabulary (my MIL’s toast to me at my wedding was “I may not understand half the words that come out your mouth, but you’re good to my son.”) and I did pretty well on the SATs, and then proceeded to have a spectacular college flame-out. I WILL say that I make a decent (probs not impressive, but decent) income, and a lot of it has to do with my ability to “pass” – I can use big-dollar words correctly in interviews, and people seem to assume I’m smart, educated, and cultured regardless of what my actual resume says. So, in this way and in certain circles, vocabulary can push you towards extra $ – but it’s by no means a sure indicator. My big vocabulary doesn’t anywhere near make up for income lost in the spectacular college flame-out.

Fig. 1 (#632)

My vocabulary is reasonably capacious and yet my bank account remains infinestimal. **regards thesaurus with lachrymose eye** **regards credit card with repugnance**

As a teacher, I couldn’t agree more. Vocabulary is a major barrier. Not knowing the words makes every single subject in school difficult.

If you are involved in education at all, you probably know about the studies that show the enormous gap in vocabulary between kids of different socio-economic backgrounds on entering kindergarten.

I deal with it every day- 3rd graders who don’t know the meaning of words like “parade,” “field,” or “brave.” They struggle to understand what they are reading, to explain their ideas, to learn new things in science and social studies, and to do word problems in math class (which is basically all of math from 2nd grade up).

Even if these kids learn new vocabulary at the same pace as richer kids, they will never catch up. They need a lot of targeted, rich, purposeful vocabulary instruction and practice.

Thanks so much for sharing this!

MissMushkila (#1,044)

@Britta Sorensen@facebook I thought this too, as a teacher. I work with ELL students at an international high school. We also have native English-speaking American students. It is a huge challenge to try to teach grade-level content and critical thinking to students who do not have the vocabulary to access texts and discussions.

For example, today I was testing new students in English speaking skills (W-APT test), and one of the tasks asked them to discuss “fact” and “opinion”. I couldn’t explain to them what those meant. They couldn’t translate. Kids who are very smart and undoubtedly can discuss concepts like that in their own language really struggle when thrown into another language.

Our students are here in order to become academically competent in English and to get an American high school degree. I see a lot check out early on because they are simply overwhelmed – and then it is hard to get a kid back. Obviously, this is a different situation (our students tend to be immensely economically privileged), but it’s easy to see where a lack of vocabulary can become an academically limiting factor elsewhere.

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