The Coming Vocabulary Crisis and What to Do About It

Ian F. MacInnes, Professor of English and director of the Foundation for Undergraduate Research, Scholarship, and Creative Activity, Albion College
December 11, 2017
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‘Odors,’ ‘pregnant,’ and ‘vouchsafed.’ I’ll get ’em all three all ready.

                                   Shakespeare, Twelfth Night


Last year, a colleague of mine attended a workshop for children from Detroit. The organizers were talking about managing expectations, and one of them said, “So you make plans, and you don’t know if they’ll always turn out, but you hope.” One little girl immediately raised her hand. When she was called on she asked, “What is ‘hope’?” Her question is a heart-breaking illustration of what it is like to grow up without privilege and without opportunity. It also speaks to something profound. We feel instinctively that to lack a word might also be to lack the thing it signifies. Words are the foundation for inward thinking and external expression. We encounter this phenomenon in our students every day, although it rarely moves us as deeply. Our students’ vocabularies inform both who they are and who they can be. Unfortunately, their knowledge of words is currently in danger. It is an issue that cuts across all of the college-age demographics, and we need to think about how to respond in our teaching.

There is good reason to be concerned. Several studies in recent years have suggested that our students are reading less, hearing less conversation, and bringing a smaller vocabulary to college.[1] It’s possible that our incoming students may also be on the brink of a steeper vocabulary decline. There are two reasons to think so. First, vocabulary size has always strongly correlated with economic privilege.[2] As we recruit increasing numbers of students from less privileged backgrounds, our student bodies will surely need more vocabulary help. Second, cognitive studies have suggested that language learning works better for most people when it includes auditory cues. As we admit students who grew up with smartphones and tablets (our current generation of students didn’t encounter them until around age 9), it has been posited that they “will end up with a lower average number of words than previous generations.”[3] This change would show up first in our more economically privileged students. They may be just as communicative (though not in person), but they will be more comfortable with gifs, memes, and emojis than with sentences. Some of you may have already seen signs of such a change, but on the whole the most challenging thing about assessing vocabulary is that our students can be losing ground without our noticing. You may see indications, as when it becomes suddenly clear that half of a class doesn’t know a word that you consider common. But more often vocabulary deficits are like fungi, which grow largely below ground, out of sight.

Teaching students who know fewer words is challenging, but we are perhaps too used to thinking of the issue as merely an obstacle to the delivery of content or a barrier to reading comprehension. In fact, a reduced vocabulary can lead to larger problems. It can sap students’ overall confidence, make them less able to have a conversation (let alone a discussion), less able to get a joke, and less likely to make friends or persist in a relationship. On a larger scale, a society with an impoverished language is less likely to have civil conversations. And since language underlies much of our ability to think and imagine, a people who cannot say as much are less likely to think of or imagine the solutions to complex problems. As professors of the liberal arts, we have a particular obligation to face problems that go beyond our classroom.

As we face this challenge, it is tempting to think that our job is simply to supply the lack by making vocabulary a part of our content. But the problem goes beyond the fact that students have lost ground that they may or may not be able to recover. Rather, their attitude towards language and towards learning words is itself changing. When they encounter words at a young age as part of a primarily visual medium not centered on words themselves, they are less likely approach them as things to be adopted and reused. They can begin to think of new words not as something to be used by them but as items thrown at them, items they are (often falsely) sure they can look up as needed. Even if they are asked to, say, memorize a definition, the word itself remains a kind of alien artifact. The ubiquity of the Internet does not help. Recent research suggests that the availability of search options inflates people’s intellectual confidence in ways that persist even if the Internet is not available.[4] If this evidence holds true, we may find students less likely to look up words on their own and less likely to think of an unknown word as something they need to learn. When they do look up words, they won’t be as sensitive to multiple meanings.

I suspect that most of us already have an array of techniques we use for promoting vocabulary learning, but we generally direct these techniques at the field-specific terminology that our students have always needed to learn. Some time ago, Beck and McKeown argued that adults have distinct levels or “tiers” of vocabulary.[5] Tier 1 words are the simple, unambiguous words learned in childhood, mostly unconsciously. Tier 2 words are more complex, context-specific words that we learn consciously (and with assistance) as we grow up. Tier 3 words are rare domain-specific words, like the terminology in our academic fields. Our vocabulary teaching has been largely dedicated to Tier 3; we presume that students are learning new Tier 2 words on their own. Of course, our present techniques for teaching our Tier 3 words may also have to be updated in light of our students’ varied linguistic experiences. We will probably need to spend time rewarding students for adopting and using this vocabulary rather than just asking them to learn definitions.

Tier 2 vocabulary, however, is something all of us will need to be far more self-conscious about. We need build in our students the habit of approaching words as opportunities. There are some practical steps that faculty members of any discipline could adopt.

  1. We will need to resist the natural pressure to simplify our language to make ourselves understood; instead, we need to use a deliberately rich vocabulary. It is especially useful if we employ words drawn from the reading (and we can take time in advance to think about these). When we do so, we give students the auditory cues that can cement vocabulary learning. We also embed the vocabulary in a more accessible context, informed by things like body language and gesture. Finally, by using a rich vocabulary ourselves, we act as a model. We demonstrate how a complex vocabulary can facilitate everyday communication.
  2. We need to be more thoughtful about the way we use words in front of students, deliberately introducing more synonyms, explanations, repetition, and circumlocution. The best model here is Shakespeare, who was a master at speaking to an audience with a smaller vocabulary. His dialogue, particularly in plays like Romeo and Juliet or Love’s Labors Lost is peppered with explanatory phrases and synonyms to help a more verbally impoverished audience keep up.[6] The advantage of this method is that students who are reluctant to announce their ignorance get a graceful way to learn what we mean (and learn words at the same time).
  3. We will need to ask students more often to recast textual information in their own words, not only through the more traditional means of formal paraphrasing and summary but also verbally and on the spot. This process of “recoding” has been shown to be crucial to creating vocabulary memory.[7] In a discussion it may mean slowing things down and resisting the impulse to move constantly forward.
  4. We need to encourage students to play with new words. Word games are some of the easiest playful activities to include in the classroom. In the past, we may have used them to reinforce course content, teaching concepts and Tier 3 words. We should consider adding Tier 2 words to these games, particularly Tier 2 words that are distinctive of the reading material for the course. We don’t need to be game-creators to do this. Many commercial word games can be easily adapted to our content. A good example is the 2016 Game of the Year (Spiel des Jahres): Codenames.
  5. We need to think carefully about how to assess and reward Tier 2 vocabulary gains. Since the Tier 2 words encountered over a semester can run into many thousands in a single class, traditional methods won’t help. We should consider instead adding explicit categories for precise and appropriate word choice to our evaluation of written and oral work. We can also reward thoughtful attention to words by calling attention to and praising the way students phrase in-class comments rather than responding only to their intended meaning.


No matter what field we are in, we need to model for students an excitement in words and language and allow them to experience the power that comes from fitting a new word to a new situation. If we are inclined to be pessimistic or to lament the decay of learning, we should take heart. Research tells us that language is hard-wired in the human brain.[8] We have biology on our side.

[1] Tom Nicholson and Sue Dymock, Teaching Reading Vocabulary (NZCER Press, 2017). “To Read or Not To Read A Question of National Consequence” (National Endowment for the Arts, 2007).

[2] Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children (P.H. Brookes, 1995).

[3] Marco Catani Qtd. in Fiona Macrae, “iPad Generation ‘Will Learn Fewer Words’ as Oral Tradition of Passing on Knowledge Is Dying out,” Mail Online, July 23, 2013, Catani’s full study (with collaborators) is “Word Learning Is Mediated by the Left Arcuate Fasciculus,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110, no. 32 (August 6, 2013): 13168–73, The full impact of smartphones and tablets on the upcoming generation is still not entirely clear. After all, books are a visual rather than auditory medium, and we know that reading improves vocabulary. Much may depend on how children are generally interacting with mobile devices.

[4] Matthew Fisher, Mariel K. Goddu, and Frank C. Keil, “Searching for Explanations: How the Internet Inflates Estimates of Internal Knowledge,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 144, no. 3 (2015): 674.

[5] Isabel L. Beck, Margaret G. McKeown, and Linda Kucan, Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction (Tandem Library, 2002).

[6] I am indebted to Kristen Abbott Bennett for the suggestion. Robert Watson has argued that many passages in Shakespeare operate almost like dictionaries. See his “Coining Words on the Elizabethan and Jacobean Stage,” Philological Quarterly 88 (2009): 49-75; and “Shakespeare’s Coining of Words,” in Interlinguicity, Internationality and Shakespeare, ed. Michael Saenger and James Loehlin (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2014), 86–106.

[7] Marilee Sprenger, How To Teach So Students Remember (Alexandria, Va: Assn for Supervision & Curriculum, 2005).

[8] Many researchers have contributed to this claim. One recent source is Iris Berent et al., “Language Universals Engage Broca’s Area,” PLOS ONE 9, no. 4 (April 17, 2014): e95155,

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