Head of the Class

How to teach psychology well

Word Up: A Graduation Gift Idea

A suggestion of a "slow" gift for college-bound students.

College graduation season is almost over and the time for high school graduations is here. What gift should you give to the college-bound student in your life? Rest assured that iPods, iPads, and college bookstore gift certificates (which might be used for, well, books, but are likely to be spent on university-logoed sweatshirts and sweatpants) will find their way to the lives of future freshmen, many of whom will eventually declare psychology as their chosen major. What can you give that might be different?


Well, I have a decidedly old fashioned suggestion (let's call it retro, shall we?): A dictionary. That's right-a big book full of words and definitions. I don't mean a pocket dictionary. I mean what is often referred to as a College Dictionary. A hardback of some physical heft published by one of those dictionary companies that used to be household names. And although I love the idea of giving the gift of an unabridged dictionary, they are, alas, much to cumbersome and apt to be used as a small table (possibly a levee?) rather than a reference source. As I type these words I am wondering how many high school students-even among the college-bound-know the distinction between "unabridged" and "abridged"?

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This very distinction brings me to explain the problem or, rather, why I advocate dictionaries as graduation gifts: The vocabulary of today's students. That's right. I am concerned that many college-bound students don't have a sizeable enough vocabulary to venture off to college and succeed where intensive reading and writing is involved. For the past 10 years or so, I've noticed that many students are unfamiliar with many of the words they encounter in the books and articles I assign (and no, I am not referring to the dreaded psychobabble jargon that causes psychologist to create and name constructs with relative abandon-that is a related but different problem). The good news: When students are stuck on a word-something I say in class or something they read in a text-they let me know immediately, usually with a raised hand and a friendly query ("What does that word mean?"). The bad news: They ask me instead of searching out the word's meaning on their own using-yes, you guessed it-a dictionary.


I don't want to revisit all the arguments for how the Internet and computers are changing students' abilities to read (i.e., they read too little too quickly and then skip to something else as if prose were just another video game). I do want to point out that despite the ubiquity of computers in the classroom, I rarely see students search for a word's meaning themselves (perhaps, like me, they are put off by all the pop-up screens that often materialize to block my goal on the rare occasion when I look up a word's meaning on a dictionary website). I've done no systematic study, but casual observation and the grading of many papers suggests that students' vocabularies-on average-lack the depth and breadth of generations past. Now, please note that I am not talking about "word-dropping," where a student will plug in an archaic, flowery, or overly complex word or two to make a paper look more "academic." That still happens and the selected words often seem clunky in the context of a paper (e.g., unless the topic is the psychological properties of acoustics, for instance, using the word "resonate" in an undergrad paper is a tad risky).


And please don't think I am recommending dictionaries as some reactionary call for a return to the old ways to learn words, usually by some rote methods. When I was in junior high (it may well have been elementary school-time bends), we had a series of books by grade that were called Word Wealth or something like that. Each week we learned a list of new words and were quizzed on spelling them correctly and defining them. Sometimes the words were a bit stodgy or even vaguely pompous (when was the last time you uttered, let alone read, the word "tatterdemalion"? I think we learned it along with "charlatan," but there is a distinction between the two-you could look them up).

I still recall an example of "good writing" from one of the books. In a sample essay meant to demonstrate the powers of an expanded vocabulary, a student wrote about a spill in a candy store. Ready? Here's the sentence, more or less intact from the seventh grade part of my mind: "We watched in horror as the multicolored confections spewed onto the floor." Multicolored confections? Is "candy" too low brow? I do think the word "spew" in this memorable sentence should be there-but not, perhaps, for the reason the textbook's editors included it. Yes, students should know what words in sentences like that one mean, but let's hope they don't learn to write that way.


Word Wealth aside, I think the way to expand one's vocabulary is to read a lot. And to make the reading broad-from fiction to science fiction, from non-fiction to biography. Such reading takes time and requires habit. I doubt whether a student who has not been a voracious reader by the time she is 17 is going to become one in time for college-which means the dictionary might not be such a bad idea (or gift). Dictionaries are there when we need them. They are solid, silent partners in learning. They may seem a bit staid or out of fashion, but so what? Your graduate may not appreciate the big book now-but he or she may do so later because a dictionary can certainly last and inform a lifetime.

Dana S. Dunn, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology at Moravian College, a liberal arts college in Bethlehem, PA.

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