Words in Context (Explorations in the Art of Grammar Series #1)

I was reading an article earlier this spring[1] that talked about literacy and the importance of content knowledge and vocabulary for understanding. The article revisited a 1988 published study by Recht and Leslie, oftentimes referred to as “the baseball experiment.” In short, the article, and the study by Recht and Leslie, addressed how after reading a passage about a half-inning of baseball, “good readers” who knew nothing about baseball did not perform better on reading comprehension than “poor readers” who understood baseball. One of the conclusions the article drew from the experiment was that reading comprehension and quality of reading had a great deal to do with vocabulary, content knowledge, and overall familiarity with the subject as opposed to merely reading skill. One need not ignore the benefit of reading skills or comprehension strategies—indeed, I find those to be helpful. But it was also helpful to revisit the notion that prior content knowledge can make a big impact on one’s reading comprehension.  

As I was preparing for a conference in which I would co-lead a presentation on the death of words, I had been considering something similar. In today’s post I provide a sort of introduction to the topic by using a couple of examples.

Example #1

Read the following passage and see if you can picture what’s happening.

The Wild race through neutral ice and cross the line onside. Zuccarello saucers a pass across to Kaprizov, and the one-timer sails just wide. Hartman now in a battle along the boards; the puck is tied up as Zuccarello joins the fray. Hartman kicks it out now, and Zuccarello with the quick backhand centering pass. Kaprizov settles the puck and rips one stick side, but a nice blocker save by Kuemper, but the rebound leaks out to Hartman who shoots and scores! Hartman lights the lamp to give the Wild a 2-goal lead late in the third.[2]

Some of you probably have a decent idea what’s going on, although in this part of the country it’s rare to have more than a handful present who could picture this hockey scenario in great detail. But now listen to a second passage again with your eyes closed trying to picture the scene.

Example #2

“Oh! Croesus,” replied the other, “you asked a question concerning the condition of man, of one who knows that the power above us is full of jealousy, and fond of troubling our lot. A long life gives one to witness much, and experience much oneself, that one would not choose. Seventy years I regard as the limit of the life of man. […] Hence man is wholly accident. For yourself, oh! Croesus, I see that you are wonderfully rich, and are the lord of many nations; but with respect to that whereon you question me, I have no answer to give, until I hear that you hast closed your life happily. For assuredly he who possesses great store of riches is no nearer happiness than he who has what suffices for his daily needs, unless it so happens that luck attend upon him, and so he continue in the enjoyment of all his good things to the end of life […] He who unites the greatest number of advantages, and retaining them to the day of his death, then dies peaceably, that man alone, sire, is, in my judgment, entitled to bear the name of ‘happy.’ But in every matter it behooves us to mark well the end: for oftentimes God gives men a gleam of happiness, and then plunges them into ruin.”[3]

This passage, taken from Herodotus’ Histories, is probably much more familiar to many of you, and perhaps a much more comfortable story for conversation.

I present these two scenarios to suggest how significant familiarity with the vocabulary and context proves for one’s ability to understand a passage or story. A great reader might still find him or herself struggling to discuss the hockey story, whereas a mediocre reader who is familiar with Greek or Persian culture or historical or wisdom literature will manage quite admirably.

Unfortunately, fewer and fewer students are taught the languages in which the Great Books are written, and not many more are taught the vocabulary they will encounter even in translations of these Great Books. The combination of a lack of vocabulary and background/historical context is perhaps the greatest reason why the Greatest of Books, the Bible, is read less and less.  If we are to best help students read and understand the Great Books, I suggest we must do more to acquaint them with the worlds they will encounter in the text.

In the next post I will explore some insights taken from Brent Strawn’s book, The Old Testament is Dying. These two posts will set the context for two additional posts about the death of words and grammar from Sara Osborne and Jenna Carey. Over the course of the summer, I plan to explore grammar as an art and other topics related to words in a series of posts.

Feature Image: Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

[1]Unfortunately, I’ve been hunting for this article again and cannot find it.

[2]Written by the author for purposes of this experiment.

[3]Excerpt from Herodotus, The Histories.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s