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Instilling Curiosity to Learn New Words
by Don McCabe

The most important element in building a vocabulary is the desire. We are all seemingly born with an insatiable curiosity about words. But somewhere along the line, many of us become satisfied with our vocabularies and stop actively learning words. As teachers, we know that the best predictor of success in college, and indeed in most walks of life, is how well we score on a “simple” twenty-five word vocabulary test.

So, if we want our students to excel, how can we re-instill the curiosity necessary to learn new words?
Certainly it isn't by making students memorize a list of words and their definitions for a test on Friday. Just because they can match a word in one column to a definition in another successfully, doesn't mean they know the word. Nor is it by making children search for new words in a dictionary. Years ago when as a high school teacher, I did one of those curriculum required traditional dictionary assignments, one of my students came up with the word pilgarlic an archaic word not found in many dictionaries other than the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). It came from a spelling (misspelling, perhaps?) of “peeled garlic” which was used to describe a bald headed man.

One of the ways I have rather successfully used with students, including my own children and grandchildren, is playing with words and malapropisms. Part of American political lore is the Smathers "redneck speech," which Smathers reportedly delivered to a poorly educated audience. The "speech" was never given; it was a hoax dreamed up by one reporter. Smathers did not say, as was reported in Time Magazine as a “yarn” during the campaign: "Are you aware that Claude Pepper is known all over Washington as a shameless extrovert? Not only that, but this man is reliably reported to practice nepotism with his sister-in-law, and he has a sister who was once a thespian in wicked New York. Worst of all, it is an established fact that Mr. Pepper, before his marriage, habitually practiced celibacy." The Smathers campaign denied his having made the speech, as did the reporters who covered his campaign, but the hoax followed Smathers to his death. This hoax has often been elaborated on using such phrases as: Claude Pepper matriculated in public, as prominent homo sapiens are wont to do. He further prided himself as being an autodidact and once masticated in a hotel restaurant with pedagogues. Of course, if one knows the meanings of all these words, these accusations are simply true and harmless. However, they can be totally misleading and completely misunderstood as being terrible activities.

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