When I was three-years-old I learnt the word peculiar. It was the first Big Word I learnt. I fell in love with it and said it over and over again. Earlier this year I learnt the word defenestration. I fell in love with it and said it over and over again. A couple of months ago I taught it to my class and they fell in love with it and used it over and over again.
We all agree it is it important to teach children the Big Words. You know, words like: serendipitous, phosphorescent, acquiesce and meticulous. The Big words. There are lots of ways to teach them. You can make children say them lots and lots of times. You can write stories with them. You can sing songs about them or show children pictures to help them remember them. Children like learning Big Words because using them makes them feel clever. Even working class children like learning Big Words.
The problem is there are just so many Big Words we could teach. At the moment there are 1,025,109 words in the English language and hundreds of thousands of those are Big Words. Sadly, we cannot teach all of them. We do our best and we use a broad and rich vocabulary ourselves but we still won’t cover all the Big Words because there are so many of them. Some words we won’t have encountered with our classes because they are quite obscure. Words like sepulchral, maieutic and mallemaroking. It’s important to teach Big Words in context and that’s harder to do with those particular Big Words.
Some children will have parents who use Big Words so they will learn Big Words at home. Some children have parents who don’t speak any English so the Big Words they learn might be in Tamil, Punjabi or Romanian. Those children can still learn Big Words in English at school but they won’t learn as many at home. Some children have lots of books at home so they might learn Big Words by reading those. They might learn more than a child who does not have books at home.
This week Year 6 children across the country had to do a reading test with lots of Big Words in it. One of those Big Words was rehabilitation. The children in my class have learnt lots of Big Words this year. This week alone they have learnt: superfluous, pedantic and plethora but they haven’t learnt rehabilitation. Even the best teachers – the ones who have taught lots of the Big Words – might not have taught the word rehabilitation. They might have taught other Big Words instead like enigmatic, petrichor or discombobulated .
Some children might have learnt the word rehabilitation at home, in a book or on TV. Children whose parents don’t speak any English or who don’t have books at home, or whose parents haven’t taught them the word rehabilitation, might not have known it unless their teacher had specifically taught it to them. Those children wouldn’t have been able to answer the question about rehabilitation of the dodo because they would not have known what rehabilitation meant and you’re not allowed a dictionary in The Test With The Big Words because that’s cheating.
If children’s success in The Test With Big Words relies on their knowledge of very specific Big Words then maybe we should let the teachers know. That way the teachers can teach the children the Big Words they need to know before the children have to do The Test With Big Words. Especially as we are using the results of The Test With The Big Words to decide which schools are the best.
Or do we have to teach all the words? All 1,025,109 just in case one of those words comes up on the test?