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Sunday, December 6, 2009

Alex Trebek: hero of vocabulary preparation

I was waiting for a football game to come on TV and there was Alex Trebek selling a vocabulary building software program. It was one of those half hour infomericals which was packed with the most amazing garbage about education ever assembled in one half hour. It seems that the company he was touting, Wordsmart, was founded by a "world renowned educator" named David A. Kay. I thought I knew all the world renowned educators. Even google seems to have missed this guy. He sells a piece of software that will not only get your kids great SAT scores and get them into Harvard, but also guarantees (not really, they just make it sound that way) them a high paying job. (This last nugget is based on the idea that Harvard graduates make more money on average than Joe Schmoe.) And will this all be done by building your child's vocabulary. And why is it important to build your child's vocabulary? Because people who succeed have large vocabularies.


I guess people must believe this nonsense so I checked to see what the software did. Predictably, it tells you a word and than asks you some multiple choice questions about it. It is has many ways of doing this but drill and practice is just drill and practice by any other name. They are making enough money on this to be able to buy half hour spots on national TV. (And they are able to buy Alex Trebek!)

Now, I assume that most of my regular readers would know why this is nonsense, but in case you happened onto this site randomly, here is the point. Because successul people have large vocabularies it does not mean that if you have a large vocabulary you will become successful. Vocabularies are acquired quite naturally by speaking to people and by writing to people and by reading by otherwise interacting verbally with people who have vocabularies a little larger than one's own. This is how we learn words naturally.

This is pretty much the only way to acquire a large vocabulary. You can try to memorize the dictionary if you like, which is more or less what this software is about, but if you don't use the words regularly you will forget them.

Another piece of nonsense brought to you by those wonderful folks who believe that testing and education are the same thing.


Bill Purves said...

Reminds me of my childhood. I was probably about 11 years old when I read "30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary," by Wilfred Funk. I quickly realized that this was going to be useless to me. But I still remember the meanings of things like "aleurophobia" and "ceraunophobia." Guess how much use those words or the rest of that powerful vocabulary have been to me. By the way, that was about 64 years ago.

Dave Ellinwood said...

I was recalling today that I once purchased this software and bought into the idea around vocabulary development. I don't know anything about where you are coming from with respect to your views on education. Though I agree with your two points that the problems with education lie in what we teach and how we teach it, I see this as only part of the problem. I see the problem lies with the idea that people are taught "what" to think and not "how" to think. Vocabulary development is important and this program and others like it can do wonders for students ability to learn at an accelerated rate which leads to confidence and mastery. I stumbled on this blog post when I googled Alex Trebek and Vocabulary program. I know this post is old and I have no idea if the blog still exists so I will stop here. But I would welcome further dialog on this subject. Thank you!