Dear Dr. Fournier:
My son has always scored low on vocabulary on his achievement tests. Although he doesn’t make bad grades on what he writes, it’s not anything all that great, either and the vocabulary is simple. When he has to read books for school, he is always asking what a word means. I make him look it up in the dictionary. He hates to use a dictionary. What can I do to help?
In response to your question, I would like to give a simple example of how important word choices can be. Below I have collected a few translations of a classic haiku by the Japanese poet Basho to show how dramatically different the moods conveyed are by the word choices that were made by the translators:
Summer grasses — traces of dreams of ancient warriors
the summer grasses
all that remains
of fallen soldiers’ dreams
The summer’s grass!
All that’s left of ancient warriors’ dreams.
summer grasses-all that remains of warrior’s dreams.
Though the gist of all of these translations remains the same, chances are that there is one that you like above the others. The reason is the attention and thought that was given to the words that were used when translating this poem from its native Japanese.
When your son writes papers, he is probably not expected to translate Japanese poetry, but what he can take from this example is an awareness of how words have subtly different meanings. Is ‘left’ a better choice than ‘remain;’ does ‘ancient’ work as well for effect as ‘fallen?’ Your son must understand for himself that there is tremendous power in the words we choose to use in both speaking and writing.
Struggling for words can be as frustrating, though not as life threatening, as struggling for air. Have you ever had a thought that you wanted to convey, and yet you felt paralyzed while searching for the perfect word? Or have you ever listened to someone else, unable to follow their thoughts because of their choice of words?
Words are important, and we all must develop a sense of “preciseness” that is best described as a sense of nuance. Words are the clothing of our thoughts, and our minds are like closets in which we carefully organize this wardrobe. Words allow us to “dress” in different ways appropriate to the occasion in all that we say, read or write.
Words expand our children’s thinking capacity beyond their current level when they read, hear, see, feel, smell and experience, in general, everything around them.
For this to happen, however, we have to know what makes each word unique. Although a dictionary can tell you a lot about a word’s meaning, it does not stimulate you to reflect immediately on the nuance that makes that word different from all the rest. Without this understanding, our children will not know how to arrange this “wardrobe” in their “closet.”
WHAT TO DO
Give your child an easy-to-use thesaurus and insist that he use it. By using a thesaurus, a child is able to accomplish the following:
e Quickly assess what makes the word slightly different from the others.
e Recognize the roots of words and word families.
e Associate words into a family of meanings as the child transitions from the elementary school skill of reading for a family of sounds.
Most of all, using a thesaurus helps our children learn the thinking skill of discernment. When children learn to discern between the message of one word and another, they also increase their thinking capacity. Mastery of this skill will allow your child, through his own choices of words, to show the world the unique person that he is. In this regard, there is no better tangible gift than a thesaurus and no better intangible gift than the skill of discernment.
CONTACT DR. FOURNIER