Category Archives: Essays/Readings

This category describes readings of any kind for either teachers or students.

Chapter 4 of The Reading Mind, “Words, Words, Words”: Summary, Implications, and Discussion Questions


  • The meaning of a word is very sensitive to the context in which it appears.
  • Researchers model the organization of word knowledge with simple features of meaning that are densely interconnected.
  • If you don’t know the meaning of a word, sometimes (but not always) you can deduce it from the context. But people are not eager to do a lot of this work, because it’s difficult and it interrupts the flow of reading.
  • Words defining other words sound circular. This problem may be partially solved through the use of grounded representations.
  • It’s not only important to know a lot of words (breadth) but for the words you know to have many connections, and for those connections to be strong (depth).
  • New words are used bit by bit, through exposure.


  • Looking words up in a dictionary will be of limited use—not useless, but, but we must acknowledge that it will be just one context in which to understand the word’s meaning, and it’s possible that the student will misunderstand the definition. Explicit instruction of new words is more likely to be successful the way teachers usually implement it, with multiple examples and with the requirement that students use each word in different contexts. There is a good evidence that students do learn vocabulary this way.
  • In addition to consistent vocabulary instruction, teachers can make it more likely that students will learn words they encounter in context. They can give students pointers that will help them use context for figure out an unfamiliar word. For example, students can learn to use the clues in the sentence about the unknown word’s part of speech, to use the setting described in the text to constrain the word’s meaning, and to use the tone of the text to help constrain meaning.
  • Students are also better able to deduce the meaning of unfamiliar words if they have had some instruction in morphology. The definition of a morpheme is a unit of language that is meaningful on its own, and that cannot be further divided. Thus “dog” is a morpheme. The really interesting morphemes are the all-purpose ones that can be added to words—usually as prefixes of suffixes—to change their tense or inflection, or meaning. For example, the prefix “super” means over, the suffix “like” means having the characteristics of, and so on.
  • Though important, direct instruction cannot account for all of children’s vocabulary learning. That’s because someone who stays in school up to age 18 may know as many as 20,000 word families. (Word families meaning that “talk, talks, talked,” and other obvious derivatives count just once.) If children are learning about a thousand words each year and there are about 36 weeks in a typical American school year, students would need to get instruction in about 28 words each week. That seems high, especially given that children in early elementary grades often don’t get explicit vocabulary instruction.
  • Much of the vocabulary that we know is not the product of explicit study, but was learned incidentally, either through conversation or reading. We would expect, however, that reading will be more useful for learning new words than conversation will be, because writers more frequently use unusual words than speakers do.
  • The difference between writing and speaking in terms of the richness of vocabulary it offers becomes really important as vocabulary grows. For the newborn, adult speech offers plenty of novelty, but they will obviously be most likely to learn the words that people around them most frequently use. So one way to boost student vocabulary is to prompt teachers and parents to use more unusual vocabulary words, and some research indicates that helps. But that may be hard to implement for older children who already know quite a few words. For them, moderately challenging reading material will be the main way they will encounter new words. And because a single instance of exposure is not enough to learn a word—learning is, after all, gradual—it would seem that the injunction to students must not just be “Read!” but “Read a lot.”

Discussion Questions

  • I cited studies showing that people are reluctant to read texts that use unfamiliar words. How much do you think it helps to read and electronic text with a feature whereby touching a word brings up a dictionary definition?
  • For older children, what is the responsibility of teachers of subjects other than English Language Arts to provide exposure to new vocabulary? Should it just be vocabulary particular to their subject, or broader? It sounds as though it would be useful for teachers in different subjects to coordinate to be sure that students practice the same words in different subjects, but is that really practical?
  • Teachers can provide varied contexts in which students can encounter the same word, so that the meaning representation will be precise. How can someone trying to improve their vocabulary do that on their own?
  • We might propose that teachers use richer vocabulary with their students. How should this be implemented? Should teachers derive a list of words that they try to use over some period of time (say, a month) to ensure students hear repetition of these words? Or should teachers just make a mental note to use words they know will challenge students, and to provide on-the-fly definitions?
  • Do you think most children have good morphological knowledge? How about adults? How about teachers? If a school or district were to set the goal of improving students’ morphological knowledge, what would be required?

Excerpted from: Willingham, Daniel T. The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2017.

Rousseau on the Necessity of Education

“We are born weak, we have need of help; we are born destitute of everything, we stand in need of assistance; we are born stupid, we have need of understanding. All that we are not possessed of at our birth, and which we require when we grow up, is bestowed upon us by education.”

Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)

Excerpted from: Howe, Randy, ed. The Quotable Teacher. Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press, 2003.


None of us know, I guess, what’s going to happen with schools opening in the fall. Even with the best case scenario, opening schools is a dicey proposition. In any case, health teachers or just about anyone in a classroom come September, you may find this reading on neurosis and its attendant vocabulary-building and comprehension worksheet useful for helping your students understand their feelings.

If you find typos in these documents, I would appreciate a notification. And, as always, if you find this material useful in your practice, I would be grateful to hear what you think of it. I seek your peer review.

Term of Art: Social Fact

Social Fact: A complex notion, with attributes of externality, constraint, and ineluctability. It is to be understood within the context of Emile Durkheim’s conception of collective conscience and collective representations. Social facts are ways of acting which emanate from collectively elaborated and therefore authoritative rules, maxims, and practices, both religious and secular. Norms and institutions are examples of social facts in more or less solidified forms. They constitute practices of the group taken collectively and thus impose themselves and are internalized by the individual. Because they are collectively elaborated they are moral and therefore constrain individual behavior. The interesting problem for sociologists concerns the gap between the ideal representations and the material social organizations and their constituent actions—as, for example, between the socially approved forms and the actual practice.

Excerpted from: Marshall, Gordon, ed. Oxford Dictionary of Sociology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

The Manchurian Candidate

The Manchurian Candidate: A memorable film (1962) directed by John Frankenheimer, based on Richard Condon’s novel of the same name (1959). It tells the story of a Korean War ‘hero’ (played by Laurence Harvey) who returns to the USA as a brainwashed zombie triggered to kill a liberal politician, his ‘control’ being his ambitious mother (played by Angela Lansbury). She goes on to order him to kill the presidential nominee, so that her husband, the vice-presidential candidate, can take over. Manchuria is a region of communist China to the north of North Korea. The expression ‘Manchurian candidate’ has subsequently been used to denote a person who has been brainwashed by some organization or foreign power and programmed to carry out its orders automatically.”

Excerpted from: Crofton, Ian, ed. Brewer’s Curious Titles. London: Cassell, 2002.

The Catcher in the Rye

Alright, moving right along on this fine Vermont morning, here is a reading on The Catcher in the Rye along with its vocabulary-building and comprehension worksheet. This is really more in the way of an introduction to the novel–and maybe a way of motivating reluctant or alienated learners to take a chance on the book.

If you find typos in these documents, I would appreciate a notification. And, as always, if you find this material useful in your practice, I would be grateful to hear what you think of it. I seek your peer review.

On Planning Writing Assignments for Learning Disabled Students

“The fundamental fact is that LD [learning disabilities] is a topic largely ignored, displaced, or believed invalid by many members of the composition field. Any effort to make research within the field useful to the study of writing problems of students with learning disabilities, and possible solutions to these problems, must necessarily extrapolate from work done with other populations in mind, The questions of how to understand the writing difficulties of students with learning disabilities, and how best to serve them in the writing classroom or tutorial, are fundamentally marginalized.”

Gander, MacLean, and Stuart Strothman. Teaching Writing to Students with Learning Disabilities: A Landmark College Guide. Putney, VT: Landmark College, 2001.

Dwight D. Eisenhower

Given that June 6 was the 75th anniversary of D-Day, this reading on Dwight D. Eisenhower and its accompanying vocabulary-building and comprehension worksheet are a day late and a dollar short.

Better late than never, I guess.

If you find typos in these documents, I would appreciate a notification. And, as always, if you find this material useful in your practice, I would be grateful to hear what you think of it. I seek your peer review.

Term of Art: Social Work

Social Work: The generic term applied to the various applied methods for promoting human welfare through the prevention and relief of suffering. In the late nineteenth century, social work was largely voluntary (notably as a charitable activity on the part of middle-class women), and aimed primarily at the alleviation o fmaterial poverty. In the period since the Second World War, social work practice has become increasingly professionalized, and now has a much wider remit embracing emotional and mental as well as economic well-being.

Contemporary social work tends to suffer from a lack of differentiation from the various other social services which comprise the modern welfare state. In Britain, for example, social workers have no legal obligation (and no practical resources) to deal with issues of unemployment, housing, and poverty—all of which are responsibility of other social services. What they are expected to deal with are the wide range of problems which diminish the ‘quality of inner life’; for example, problems and crises associated with adoption, fostering of the young and old, marital reconciliation, sexual and physical abuse, and people’s relationships with one another generally.


There are several models of social work practice. The ‘problem-solving’ approach involves the social worker in reinforcing the client’s emotional and organizational resources to deal with his or her difficulties. The various ‘psycho-social therapies’ stress the need for prior psycho-social diagnosis as a prerequisite for psycho-social treatment. Partly as a reaction against the deterministic and mechanical view of action implied in these approaches, ‘functionalists’ have emphasized the role of the social worker in helping (rather than treating) the client, by sustaining an appropriate supporting relationship with him or her. Other models are oriented towards behavior-modification, crisis-intervention, and short-term task-centeredness. In reality, practice tends to be characterized by eclectic pragmatism, rather than adherence to a specific method. Strong recent influences include feminist theory and anti-oppressive practice. Good recent overviews are Malcolm Payne, Modern Social Work Theory (1991) for Britain, and J. Heffernan et al., Social Work and Social Welfare (2nd edn., 1992) for the United States.

Not surprisingly, many outside observers have expressed concern at the periodic psychotherapeutic takeover of social work; similarly, given its inherently moral character, social work practice has been subject to repeated controversy involving those who view it as primarily a political tool—either for promoting or hindering social justice.

Excerpted from: Marshall, Gordon, ed. Oxford Dictionary of Sociology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Draft Riots

Now seems like a perfect time to post this reading on the draft riots in New York City in 1863 and its accompanying vocabulary-building and comprehension worksheet. These events were, among other things, an outbreak of racist violence that included the arson against the Colored Orphan Asylum on Fifth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan.

If you find typos in these documents, I would appreciate a notification. And, as always, if you find this material useful in your practice, I would be grateful to hear what you think of it. I seek your peer review.