The Need to Read

“We all need literature that is above our measure–though we may not have sufficient energy for it all the time.  But the energy of youth is usually greater.  Youth needs, then, less than adulthood, what is down to its (supposed) measure. . . .Therefore do not write down to Children or to anybody.  Not even in language.  .  .  . An honest word is an honest word, and its acquaintance can only be made by meeting it in a right context.  A good vocabulary is not acquired by reading books written according to some notion of the vocabulary of one’s age-group.  It comes from reading books above one.”

The above quote is from a letter written by author J. R. R. Tolkien, a man known best for his fantasy novels.  His book The Lord of the Rings was voted by scholars as the most important book of the 20th century.  But Tolkien’s main calling in life and chief identity was as an educator and philologist.  As Professor of Anglo-Saxon and then as Professor of English Language at Oxford; as one of the writers of the Oxford English Dictionary; and as the author of a number of influential treatise on language and writing, he was one of the leading authorities in English language education in his day.  He also knew 26 other languages, not counting the ones he invented himself.  In other words, I believe he knew what he was talking about when it came to teaching children language.

It is estimated that there are nearly three quarters of a million words in the English language, and that number is growing all the time.  But studies show that even well educated people in America tend to know less than 20,000 of those words, and that the average American uses only about 2,000 words in everyday conversation.   Why is this?  English is one of the richest, most versatile languages currently in use, but we utilize only a fraction of its incredible vocabulary.  I submit two possible reasons, each related to the other.

First, we speak down to our children; and read down to them, too.  Instead of helping them to increase their vocabulary, we encourage them to use only small, “simple” words.  My question is, who decided which words would be considered “simple”?  When a child is born, he knows no words at all.  Every word is equally new to him.  And he is born hard-wired to absorb language at an incredible rate.  He can and will learn any word that is directed to him in context.  It doesn’t matter if the words have one or five syllables:  he can learn to recognize them and understand them.  I am not, of course, implying that a baby can speak complex words;  but that is a physical, not a cognitive problem, and one he will grow out of swiftly.  The child may not be able to pronounce the words, but that does not mean he cannot understand them.  The point is to use words in everyday interactions so as to introduce them in proper context.  As the child grows older, he can be encouraged to ask the meanings of the new words he encounters and can be taught to discern the meanings of unfamiliar words through the overall meaning of the sentence in which it is used.  This is equally true in verbal communication and in literature.  Reading books that stretch and exercise the child’s cognitive abilities will have the same effect on his mind that fresh air and physical activity will have on his growing body.  Unfortunately, Americans in general no longer encourage their children to read good books.  Looking through the stacks of the local library will reveal shelf-loads of drivel written for children’s consumption, all written with a certain age group in mind and an artificially curtailed vocabulary meant to suit that age group.  Americans do not speak to their children as if they were intelligent human beings.  They talk down to them as if they believe children to be subnormal or incapable of learning normal speech.

I offer an example from my own children’s lives.  I ask my friends’ indulgence, as anyone who knows me well has surely already heard this story a number of times.  But it is a perfect anecdote to illustrate my point.  When my daughter Freya was seven years old, our washing machine broke down.  We had to gather up our five or six baskets of laundry and head to nearest laundromat for what I knew would surely be an adventure encompassing the entire afternoon.  Accordingly, I brought some of Freya’s schoolwork with us so that we could pass the time in useful pursuits.  I set her up on a folding table with math problems to solve, and proceeded to fill five washing machines.  Just then, she discovered the vending machines and loudly requested a snack.  I called back to her, “Whether you get a treat is contingent upon how quickly you finish your schoolwork.”  Instantly, a middle-aged harridan swooped across the room at me and cried, “How dare you speak to that child that way?”  I was bewildered, and not a little angry!  Was this woman objecting to my withholding treats from my child?  She went on, “How do you expect the kid to understand you when you use words like ‘contingent’?  I don’t even know what that means!”  Apparently I was guilty of child abuse by using a word of more than one syllable.  Many retorts came to mind, including one that questioned her innate intelligence and another that questioned her right to insert herself into my business.  Instead, I turned to Freya and asked, “Did you understand what I meant by “contingent’?”  “Not exactly,” my seven-year-old replied, “but I figured it out from the context.”  My assaulting harridan turned red and slunk away.

Of course, my children are more intelligent than any others on earth.  But that’s besides the point.  Any child can learn to discern  the meanings of new words by placing them in context.  The best way to teach them to do this is to read good books to them.  Many Americans make the mistake of reading to their children only until they are able to read for themselves.  We must continue to read to our children until they are at least 10 or 11 years old.  And the books we read to them should be well-written and contain a vocabulary that will challenge them.  For example, I read The Lord of the Rings to my son when he was nine.  He devoured it, and before he turned ten, he was ready for The Silmarillion, a book many adults have a hard time wading through.   I believe every  eight- or nine-year-old should read, or have read to him, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, A Wrinkle in Time, and other books of the same caliber.

This brings me to the second reason I believe our working American vocabulary is so pitifully small.  Adults don’t read good books, either.  Many of the modern novels that seem to be popular have inferior vocabularies and simplified sentence structures.  Some are so badly written they are actually detrimental rather than otherwise.  Adults in America seem unable to rise to the challenge of “reading above their measure”, as Tolkien puts it.  Whether out of sheer laziness or from a shortened attention span, most Americans cannot bring themselves to read good books.  And so they impoverish themselves, satisfied with the crusts of cultural experience and deliberately avoiding the meat and potatoes, the nourishing fruits, and the rich delicacies that our amazing body of English literature freely offers anyone who desires the best.  Our children learn from this example and so grow up so starved and so ignorant of all that is available to them that they cannot see the abundance that they could possess if they would only reach out and take it.

Why is it important to increase one’s vocabulary?  Why does reading good books enrich us both mentally and spiritually?  The fact is, humans are virtually incapable of thinking about ideas for which they have no words.  A limited vocabulary means a limited ability to think and reason.  Limited reading material means limited access to ideas and experiences.  It also means having to make do with an inadequate vocabulary to try to express complex thoughts.  There is a reason there are so many synonyms in the English language; each individual word carried a slightly different shade of meaning.  To illustrate:  the other day I was sitting in on my daughter’s art lesson, and the teacher was showing them how to prepare a canvas using a wash of burnt sienna.  She objected to the use of burnt umber or raw umber, insisting on burnt sienna as the best color to use for this purpose.  Now, I would have looked at all three of these colors and called them “brown”.  However, even my unpracticed eye could detect the differences in these three shades of brown, although I could not have explained what made them different.  For an artist, however, the use of exact words to describe the exact shade of color desired helps to circumvent all manner of misunderstanding.  Can you imagine if we only had the word “brown” to describe every shade of brown?  “Now class, use your brown paint to make the wash for your canvas.  No, that brown is too orange.  It must be more yellowish.  No, that’s not quite it, either.  Less red and more black.  No, no, that was too much black.”  It could take years to rediscover the color called “burnt sienna”, with each student having to recreate it every time it was needed.  There are shades of meanings in every word we use, not just the words for colors.  If I said I had a “good” time this weekend, I would have conveyed no information whatsoever.  Did I have a pleasant time?  Or was it unpleasant but informative?  Interesting? Life-altering?  Or was it simply restful? Peaceful?  Or busy? Satisfying?  Useful?  The more words we have at our disposal, the more accurately we can convey information and the more productive our thinking will become.  We should be diligent to equip our children with a vocabulary they can use for a lifetime of thinking, speaking, and reading well.



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5 responses to “The Need to Read

  1. Richard Ross

    I think you’ve overlooked a possible explanation for the failure of our educational system as evidenced by our decreasing vocabulary and abysmal literacy: “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.” (1984)


    • Yes, you’re right. I did think of that. But I couldn’t conceive of a reason for the government to cull out words such as “contingent” or “burnt sienna”. The government is to blame for many things, but people can have as large a vocabulary as they desire. We all have access to dictionaries!


  2. Just came across this quote:
    “The reading of all good books is indeed like a conversation with the noblest men of past centuries who were the authors of them, nay a carefully studied conversation, in which they reveal to us none but the best of their thoughts.” —Rene Descartes


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