the educational technology journal

Vol 20|No 2|November 2010
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Wordless is Clueless:
Using New Technologies
to Build Vocabulary
and Strengthen Comprehension

By Jamie McKenzie, ©2010, all rights reserved.
About author

A rich vocabulary is an essential aspect of reading comprehension and understanding in general. Without a rich vocabulary it is easy for citizens (and our students) to be bamboozled, scammed, and led astray. Fortunately, the Web offers some great tools that make the learning of vocabulary quite engaging. Armed with a good vocabulary, our students will be able to look at documents like the one below and notice the deceptive business practice hidden within the big words.

At the end of my three year lease, I went looking for a new car to replace my Volvo, but I encountered the same deceptive fake "Opt Out" document at three different dealerships. This experience was described in some detail in the article "Privacy? What Privacy?"

Each dealer wanted me to disclose all kinds of personal financial data and then give them the right to share it (or sell it) to a range of affiliated and non-affiliated parties. When I objected, all three offered me the same "Opt-out" document reproduced below, claiming this would protect me.

What's misleading about this document?

To read the full document, click on the image below, but the most important sections
may be the words next to the box below and the words in #6 below.

"Non-affiliated third parties?"

That is quite technical legal wording some would call "legalese" — "the formal and technical language of legal documents that is often hard to understand." (New Oxford American Dictionary) At its worst, legalese is an intentional device to mislead and confuse the consumer. If you have a good vocabulary and you take the time to read the fine print, you will understand that checking the box above does almost nothing to protect you from identity theft because it only eliminates "non-affiliated third parties" — those companies with whom the auto dealers are not connected anyway.

Web sites such as Lexipedia.com (shown above) help us to explore the more complex meanings of words and help our students to build up their vocabularies so they are prepared to wrestle with legalese, big words, obfuscation and symantic trickery. When confronted by the fake opt-out clause above, I was left with no way to finance the car without surrendering to identity theft, so I ended up buying the Volvo with cash and working with a local legislator to draft a law to protect consumers in Washington from such deceptive practice and identity theft.

Other Web sites that support the exploration of word meanings:

Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered

Without a rich vocabulary, one is easily baffled and befuddled. The recent mortgage and financial crisis in the U.S.A. was aided and abetted by consumers who did not bother to read or understand the fine print of the documents they signed. "ARM stands for what?"

Although it should seem obvious to any teacher who has looked at a reading test, vocabulary is responsible for a major chunk of a reading comprehension score. The 8th grade NAEP reading test asks questions like the following, and understanding complex words is a crucial aspect of handling many questions in which tough vocabulary is embedded.

  • Do you think the main character showed courage? Give evidence from the story to support your answer.
  • Can you come up with a half dozen words that capture the personality of Jay Gatsby?
  • What one word does the best job of expressiong the theme of "Two Tramps in Mudtime" by Robert Frost?
  • What do you find most beautiful about Dreiser's Sister Carrie?

Grasping the Mysterious, the Confounding and the Essential

As students struggle with complex ideas and concepts, it helps if they can entertain a cloud of words related to the main idea being explored. Whether it be beauty or courage or greed, the goal is to increase the list of related words from an initial list of 5-10 to more than 60. We hope to take the student far past the often simplistic dictionary definitions to a much richer view of the concept.

To illustrate this growth process, we might lead students to move past external aspects of beauty to many aspects that relate to inner beauty. We want them to appreciate the difference between beauty and artifice, cosmetics and glamour. This process is outlined in the two articles below:

When students spend time exploring the concepts put forth by the Dove Evolution video, they begin to see that what sometimes passes as beauty may be more a matter of artifice.


To deepen their understanding of the photoshopping of reality portrayed in this video, students might turn to a thesaurus once again. When they first started thinking about beauty, it is unlikely that trickery, contrivance and ruse would have come to mind, but the exploration of richer meanings leads them to contrast inner beauty with outer beauty and natural beauty with beauty that is staged and contrived.

To further the exploration, students might also turn to a quotation Web site like Thinkexist.com to find sayings that stretch their understanding of the concept at hand.

Searching for "beauty" they find quotations like the following:

“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”
Eleanor Roosevelt
“Beauty of style and harmony and grace and good rhythm depend on simplicity.”

These ideas once again broaden, deepen and enrich their view of the original concept, but now that they have identified related words like "artifice" and "cosmetic," the quotations about these other words serve to further extend their understanding.

“In the factory we make cosmetics; in the drugstore we sell hope.”
Charles Revson
“There are no better cosmetics than a severe temperance and purity, modesty and humility, a gracious temper and calmness of spirit; and there is no true beauty without the signatures of these graces in the very countenance.”
Arthur Helps

Orwell's 1984 — Newspeak and a Very Small Vocabulary

The importance of words was evident to Orwell when he wrote 1984, as a central strategy of the government was the reduction of vocabulary understood and used by the citizens.

"Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten."

Orthodoxy and unquestioning loyalty was the order of the day in 1984 — well served by thought control and a shrinking vocabulary. Narrowing the vocabulary available to the general public can limit the range and depth of their thinking and understanding, making them far more susceptible to totalitarian control, propaganda and appeals to emotion.

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