We all instinctively know that people who use a wide vocabulary in their conversation possess something valuable; anything that we can’t buy with money usually is. Sometimes we are even impressed with such individuals – you know – the way they casually toss in obscure words we don’t understand, yet we smile and nod pretending that we do. Often we assume they must be well educated, and they probably are. Now gaining respect from society might help us in some ways, but are there deeper reasons why we might want to develop a wide vocabulary ourselves and in our children?
Firstly, words represent ideas - maybe not articles like a and the, but certainly nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs do! Therefore it follows that the more words a person understands, the more ideas they are able to engage with. And because ideas have consequence for people – they matter – as do the words we use to discuss them.
Languages and their vocabularies developed around the world in a unique physical and social context. As these people learned more, built more and designed more, they had to invent more words to explain their creations and discoveries. This was and is true of scientific discoveries, but also philosophical and political ideas. The more ideas we can understand, the greater capacity we have for thinking deeply, critically and intelligently about the world.
Following on from this, understanding a wide vocabulary opens the door for us to increase in knowledge as we are able to confidently listen to the voices of great minds and truly learn from them without being overwhelmed or feeling totally out of our depth. My older children (12 and 13) are now quite comfortable sitting with Shakespeare, Thomas More, Jane Austen, C.S Lewis and Winston Churchill; they are able to glean from their wisdom, and this is only because they have extended vocabularies for their age – otherwise they would be floundering all over the place. This can also enable us to hold our own in a conversation with someone more knowledgeable than us on a given topic, which can open up opportunities and new relationships.
A rich vocabulary also helps us become better communicators, whether spoken or written. In both these modes of conversation, we draw on our vocabulary bank to communicate our thoughts, to persuade, to manipulate, to inspire, to comfort, and to do all the things that humans do when relating together. Words are the currency of communication, and the greater the words in the vault of our minds, the greater wealth we possess to achieve our goals – whether as a story-teller, a campaigner or a lover.
Finally, because possessing a varied vocabulary is inevitably tied to feasting on glorious literature, words can add to the beauty of our lives. They are like music, adding new instruments to the symphony of our thought life. We can simply enjoy the works of great poems, stories from literature and theatrical masterpieces with greater pleasure for the sheer beauty that they are.
“Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven, Having some business, do entreat her eyes To twinkle in their spheres till they return. What if her eyes were there, they in her head? The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars, As daylight doth a lamp; her eyes in heaven Would through the airy region stream so bright That birds would sing and think it were not night.” Romeo, Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, scene 1
How does a Charlotte Mason education develop our children into adults who possess the wealth of a rich vocabulary? Reading, along with copywork and dictation.
Reading widely and reading the best books available is foundational to this educational method. Children need to read books that bring their subjects to life through story, character development where possible, and masterfully crafted prose, appropriate for their age level but always challenging them too. These are ‘living books’; not dry collections of facts. By reading poets, plays, essays, tales, fables, scientific works, nature lore, literature and philosophy, children will be served up a vast array of ideas, carefully wrapped in new and interesting words.
Copywork and dictation build on this foundation by making children stop and slowly notice the words they are reading enough to actually spell them correctly. Through this process our children are noticing and writing out words that are new to them, but because they are writing them in the context of a sentence or a paragraph, they are quietly decoding the meaning and will store away the options they’ve deduced for future reference. Next time, when they are confronted with this word in a new context, the meaning will become even clearer. The fact that they actually copied this word by hand, and spelled it correctly, is similar to depositing money in the bank, just in this case, it’s the bank of our minds and hearts, and it didn’t cost anything except a little effort.