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Why Vocabulary and Facts Are So Important

Getty Center July 17 2010 024How do you know all the words without looking at the back of the cards? 

A fifth grade student was amazed that I knew every word on the American Heritage Dictionary’s Top 100 Words Every Middle Schooler Should Know  list. She only recognized five.

I assured her that soon she would also know these words, because we were about to begin learning them now.The authors explain why knowing these words is so important:

Middle school presents students with new challenges as they make the leap from childhood to adolescence and prepare to step into a broader world. The subjects at school are more demanding, teachers have higher expectations, and homework multiplies.

One thing parents can do to help their kids negotiate this often-daunting transition is to equip them with a well-rounded and robust vocabulary. Knowing more sophisticated words—what they mean, how to spell and pronounce them—makes reading easier and writing more expressive.

  His dad and I use sophisticated language around him all the time. I’m amazed that he doesn’t know the definitions of these words. 

This well-educated parent of a seventh grader was dismayed at her child’s low vocabulary scores. But although kids do pick up many new words by eavesdropping on adult conversations, often the gap between what young people know and what grown-ups are talking about is just too wide for kids to bridge, and so they don’t absorb the new information. Jessica Lahey, education writer for the New York Times, explains:

Remember when you were in high school or college, in that class where nothing seemed to stick? No matter how much you studied? For me, those classes were Ind0-Iranian Mythology and Greek and Roman Mythology. I was overworked (long, not particularly interesting story), exhausted, and frustrated by my inability to keep it all in my head. I did not have enough of a knowledge base to be able to link the stories of Hera’s jealousy to Hercules’ labors to what it might mean if Atlas shrugged. These stories are all linked, and knowing one story helps me remember another because the details of those stories form a sticky net, like a spider web. Once I have  accumulated enough threads of knowledge, my net is fine enough to catch the new fragments of knowledge that came drifting by. 
And that’s when the magic begins. That’s when connections across subjects begin to happen, when a reading of Great Expectations can evolve into a discussion of the Victorian Era, Frankenstein, Icarus, the tower of Babel, and Promethius unbound.
That’s how content works.

This means that students need adults to purposefully and directly teach them what we educators call “content knowledge”; more plainly: We need to teach our kids facts.And we have to push through their resistance. Why do I have to learn this stuff? What’s the point? Learners won’t immediately grasp the relevance of much factual material until they’ve been pushed to learn enough of it to be able to make connections.

Chunking is the process through which the brain builds Lahey’s sticky net of connections. The classic example is the way most of us memorized our social security numbers by grouping the ten separate digits into three or four chunks; we took 145-8674-351 and thought “one forty-five, eighty-six seventy four, three fifty-one,” thus creating three or four chunks instead of ten separate digits. (Notice that this trick wouldn’t work for a young child who hasn’t yet mastered the place value system into the tens place and who therefore can’t think of 45 as “forty-five”…knowledge is needed to create knowledge!)

Cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker explains the magic of chunking, and provides the answer to why the seventh grader wasn’t getting as much out of his parents’ dinner table conversations as they imagined:

     Chunking is not just a trick for improving memory; it’s the lifeblood of higher intelligence. As children we see one person hand a cookie to another, and we remember it as an act of giving. One person gives another one a cookie in exchange for a banana; we chunk the two acts of giving together and think of the sequence as trading. Person 1 trades a banana to Person 2 for a piece of shiny metal, because he knows he can trade to Person 3 for a cookie; we think of it as selling. Lots of people buying and selling make up a market. Activity aggregated over many markets gets chunked into the economy. The economy now can be thought of as an entity which responds to actions by central banks; we call that monetary policy. One kind of monetary policy, which involves the central bank buying private assets, is chunked as quantitative easing. And so on.
As we read and learn, we master a vast number of these abstractions, and each becomes a mental unit which we can bring to mind in an instant and share with others by uttering its name. An adult mind that is brimming with chunks is a powerful engine of reason, but it comes with a cost: a failure to communicate with other minds that have not mastered the same chunks. Many educated adults would be left out of a discussion that criticized the president for not engaging in more “quantitative easing,” though they would understand the process if it were spelled out. A high school student might be left out if you spoke about “monetary policy,” and a schoolchild might not even follow a conversation about “the economy.” (The Sense of Style, p 68)

So, does your child know those Top 100 Middle School words? Here they are in online flashcard form, including a quiz you can generate to assess your child’s achievement:

And here are a few more good articles on this topic:How Knowledge Strengthens Reading Comprehension, Learning and Thinking

 Why Doctors Need Tons of Knowledge in Their Heads (and not just medical apps on their iPhones)

Why Students (and Citizens!) Need a Core of Knowledge in Order to Reason Well and Make Good Decisions

Why Vocabulary and Facts Are So Important

Leigh Pretnar Cousins, MS

Leigh Pretnar Cousins, MS is an educator, counselor, writer and speaker. She's been a tutor, test prep coach and home school teacher for over thirty years. Click HERE to visit Leigh's website and to subscribe to her newsletter, "Learning Something New."

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APA Reference
Cousins, L. (2014). Why Vocabulary and Facts Are So Important. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 8, 2020, from


Last updated: 11 Dec 2014
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