By Sara Osborne
As a college writing instructor, I have noticed a disturbing trend in my students’ ability to choose and use words appropriately. These same students also appear increasingly unable to comprehend critical vocabulary used in non-fiction writing. The unfortunate result of these challenges is an inability to contribute to class discussions on important ideas and the inevitable struggle with articulating a coherent response in writing. Students who cannot process ideas in a text and respond with their own clear thoughts risk losing a place in the discourse which shapes our world.
This isn’t a new problem. In 1944, C. S. Lewis wrote an essay entitled “The Death of Words” in which he explains the danger of losing word meaning. He discusses the word “Christian” in particular, suggesting that in his time it had become synonymous with “good.” In a postmodern culture set against the truth claims of Christianity and prone to redefining key terms, we might want to take note of Lewis’s warning. Hear Lewis’s caution:
…when, however reverently you have killed a word you have also, as far as in you lay, blotted from the human mind the thing that word originally stood for. Men do not long continue to think what they have forgotten how to say.Lewis, 1944, p. 9
Indeed, we do not. My students are evidence of this. As teachers of language and heralds of truth, we must recognize this problem and employ whatever means possible to fight against it. Classical educators already possess an arsenal of tools for teaching students the meaning of words, but new strategies are also needed. Consider the following:
- Expose students to important historical texts and classic literature. Allow students to be exposed to vocabulary beyond their reach, and take time to define important words. A steady stream of good, articulate writing provides students with a backdrop for growth in their own reading and writing skills.
- Defend the teaching of Grammar and Latin. Students gain a great understanding of how language works through learning these skills. Grammar helps students learn how words work, and Latin helps them decipher the meaning of countless words in the English language.
- Teach important vocabulary as soon as possible. Expose students to new words early on—their capacity for remembering is greater than we realize! Consider using a book of suggested vocabulary such as The Must Words: The 6000 Most Important Words for a Successful and Profitable Vocabulary. Teach students a few new words a week, or look for other creative strategies to incorporate them into classroom activities.
- Model attentiveness to word choice. No instructor is exempt from the need to take care with his or her language use! Even teachers and parents do well to continually expose themselves to good writing and new vocabulary. Students will see our own desire to use words appropriately and, hopefully, follow suit.
In his essay on dying words, Lewis writes: “To save any word from the eulogistic and dyslogistic abyss is a task worth the efforts of all who love the English language” (Lewis, 1944, p. 9). I concur; as teachers and parents—and especially as Christians—we must do all we can to help our children learn the meaning of words and the ability to wield them well.
Lewis, C.S. (1944). The death of words. The Spectator Archives (22 Sept 1944), p. 9.Retrieved from http://archive.spectator.co.uk/article/22nd-september-1944/9/the-death-of-words.
This article was originally published on The Classical Thistle on February 7, 2018.
Supplemental Notes from “The Death of Words” presentation at the 2022 Classical Christian Education Conference.
- What is meant by “the death of words”?
- C. S. Lewis’s article
- Words with once precise denotations become emptied of that precision and exchanged for vague connotations (ex: “Christian”)
- Words once used as factual indicators are judged by popular opinion and lumped into being general expressions for “good” or “bad” (ex: “gentleman”)
- Words lose so much of their original denotations that we must accompany them with “real” or “true” in order to get an accurate sense of meaning (ex: gentleman)
- Personal experience as a College Composition instructor
- Students don’t understand the words in short non-fiction essays, resulting in their inability to discuss the ideas in the text. They often don’t ask questions about these words, further compounding the problem.
- Student writing uses limited vocabulary, often repeating the same vague words over and over in an attempt to communicate meaning to the reader; this meaning is not clear to the reader (“But you know what I mean…”)
- Students rely on adverbs to make up for weak, imprecise verbs (they don’t readily know strong, active verbs)
- Students use the incorrect word for the meaning they are trying to convey
- Students use incorrect forms of words (wrong verb tense for meaning; wrong preposition for meaning; gerund vs. infinitive, etc…). Grammar and syntax affect conveyed meaning, and students often don’t seem to grasp that.
- Many of the issues I see with my college freshmen and sophomores are the same as in the ESL classroom. Some aspects of English are becoming foreign to native speakers.
- C. S. Lewis’s article
- Why has this “death of words” happened?
- Absence/reduction of reading has made us less familiar with important vocabulary
- Increased use of texting, email, etc.. and less focus on formal writing has made us less adept at utilizing precise vocabulary and formal, conventional language. (Writing how we speak)
- Effects of digital reading on the brain—our memory is changing! With the gains, there are undoubtably some losses!
- “There are unseen costs for every age. By a calculus we largely neglect, the more constant the digital stimulation, the more prevalent the boredom and ennui expressed by even very young children when we take the devices away….Hyperattention, continuous partial attention, and what the psychiatrist Edward Hallowell calls environmentally induced attentional ‘deficits” pertain to us all….There is neither the time nor the impetus for the nurturing of a quiet eye, much less the memory of its harvests. Behind our screens, at work and at home, we have sutured the temporal segments of our days so as to switch our attention from one task or one source of stimulation to another. We cannot but be changed. And we are—in ways you have begun to sense. Over the last ten years we have changed in how much we read, how we read, what we read, and why we read with a ‘digital chain’ that connects the links among them all and extracts a tax we have only begun to tally.” -Maryann Wolf, Reader Come Home, pp. 71-72
- Ironically, in a world more globalized than ever, students’ limited “community of voices” results in less exposure to foreign words, ideas, and concepts. (Socio-economic factors also play in to this.)
- On the socio-economic factor: “Children who have less exposure to books have different vocabularies and different experiences with stories and plots long familiar to other children.” -MaryAnn Wolf, Reader Come Home
- Lack of understanding of logic leads to misuse of words which denote proper relationships between ideas (ex: cause/effect…. “because,” “as a result of,” “consequently”….)
- We live in a fast-paced world. Students (all of us?!) don’t want to stop and look up unknown words.
- Why is “the death of words” problematic?
- We lose the ability to communicate precise meaning to one another in dialogue and debate (and in written communication)
- We lose the vehicle for the communication of ideas essential to the preservation of important aspects of society, such as democracy and ethics.
- “…Those who have read widely and well will have many resources to apply what they read; those who do not will have less to bring, which, in turn, gives them less basis for inference, deduction, and analogical thought and makes them ripe for falling prey to unadjudicated information, whether fake news or complete fabrications. Our young will not know what they do not know.” -in Maryann Wolf’s Reader Come Home
- In a Benjamin Barber essay we read in College Comp, he writes: “Jefferson and Adams both understood that the Bill of Rights offered little protection in a nation without informed citizens. Once educated, however, a people was safe from even the subtlest of tyrannies.” (Comp Reader, p. 214)
- Truths (like “Christian”) lose common understanding and become mere preferences or connotations of “good” or “bad”
- Vague vocabulary mimics ambivalence toward—or disbelief in—knowable Truth. In some ways, it is simply a product of postmodern thought. If we believe in Truth, we should be ready for our precise defenses to be counter-cultural.
- “Men do not long continue to think what they have forgotten how to say.” -C. S. Lewis
- What can be done to fight this “death of words”?
- Exposure to lots of words: it doesn’t end with the grammar stage
- Teachers and parents modeling precise vocabulary
- Books—yes!—but also quality audiobooks, theater productions, songs, lectures…. Some students with reading challenges like dyslexia need exposure to words 10x more often before they read and understand them. Be creative with all of your students, but especially those with reading challenges who may not naturally experience—through reading books—as many words as their peers.
- Continued exposure to conventional grammar (connected with meaning)
- Latin (helps students decipher many English words)
- Broadened “community of voices”
- Variety of genres of texts
- Cross-cultural element—do we read/listen “globally”?
- Exposure to a variety of authors/speakers
- Proactive acquisition of new vocabulary (Must Words and other resources…)
- Systematic vocabulary study (i.e. Must Words)
- Explicit instruction regarding connotations and denotations of words (Comparison to having to teach idioms to ESL students because they won’t be familiar with the sense of a phrase by looking up each word’s technical denotation.)
- Pre-reading and reading tasks which help students to decipher new words (Bonus: “activating schemata” through vocab awareness and pre-reading discussion also helps with reading comprehension!)
- “It is still a matter of amazement to me that what we know before we read any sentence prepares us to recognize even the visual shapes of the individual words faster and to understand their meanings more rapidly and more precisely in any new context.” -Maryann Wolf, Reader Come Home, p. 37
- Fostering a community where question-asking is encouraged
- Incentives for using new vocabulary appropriately/in context (ex: bonus point for student in Comp who could correctly use three new words from a non-fiction text in our class discussion….)
- Ask students to integrate new vocabulary from a reading text into their writing assignments to reinforce learning
- *Note: As teachers, we’re still learning new words! Don’t discount the affect it has on students to let them see you doing this. Look words up in front of them; tell them the truth when you yourself don’t know! It serves both of you to model this well.
- Challenging reading
- Even in the second language classroom, the goal is to expose students to language that will challenge them without ensuring failure. This is also true for native speakers/readers. Classical ed. typically follows this approach, but teachers must consistently monitor student progress to find this balance.
- In his book, How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler writes: “If you are reading in order to become a better reader, you cannot read just any book or article. You will not improve as a reader if all you read are books that are well within your capacity. You must tackle books that are beyond you…books that are over your head. Only books of that sort will make you stretch your mind. And unless you stretch, you will not learn.” (p. 339)
- Using primary texts helps students become familiar with words from a variety of time periods, authors, disciplines, etc…. It often seems daunting to use these texts with younger students, but adequate pre-reading activities and appropriate pace can combat this feeling. Using primary texts can also be motivating (just like in ESL classroom!), as students feel a sense of accomplishment when they have read and understood them.
- Accountability in Use/Writing
- Note incorrect word choices in student drafts (I mark these with “WC”); Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style includes an entire section on “words and expressions commonly misused”. Teach these to students and mark them in their writing.
- Insist on clear writing across all subject areas—not just in English class.
- Teach students to avoid vague, empty words in favor of strong, precise ones (explain “Dead Word” list).
- Exposure to lots of words: it doesn’t end with the grammar stage
- See The Elements of Style #16: “Use definite, specific, concrete language.
- Give examples of this kind of language to your students; draw comparisons like George Orwell’s example from the Bible (Strunk & White, Elements of Style, p. 23)