Vocabulary and Grammar: Critical Content for Critical Thinking

Article excerpt


The status of direct instruction in grammar and vocabulary has fallen into decline during an era of whole-language philosophy that rejects teaching "skills in isolation." Grammar has been misunderstood and stereotyped as tedious, remedial, unteachable, and useless. These areas of knowledge must be restored to their necessary place in language arts programs for gifted children, who need educated vocabularies and grammar competence of exceptional quality.

Although the direct instruction of vocabulary and grammar is sometimes missing in programs for gifted children, these rigorous content areas are prerequisite to the highest fulfillment of curricular goals in language arts. The dictum that "skills should not be taught in isolation" should be modified when the result is that critical knowledge, such as a strong foundation in Latin etymology, will not be taught at all. If gifted secondary students are to think clearly about language or in the medium of language, high-level intellectual components must be in place. These components include an array of operations sometimes referred to as critical thinking or higher order thinking. These thinking skills, however, fail unless they deploy a necessary system of right word use and right grammar, which are also high forms of mental process. In fact, once internalized, the precise intellectual implementation of vocabulary and grammar is of such complexity that it might be more accurate to say that the other thinking skil ls depend from, rather than rest on, mastery of vocabulary and grammar. Van Tassel-Baska (1988) has written that gifted students need an understanding of syntactic structure, vocabulary development, analogies and etymology; and an appreciation of semantics, linguistics, and language history. According to VanTassel-Baska: "A sound verbal arts program for the gifted needs to include a strong language study element that allows students to understand the English language from a variety of perspectives" (p. 167). Gifted programs typically emphasize higher order operations, but when these operations are conducted with wrong words or grammar, the result is not sound. Reasoning operations using wrong words misdirect thought to wrong phenomena indicated by the wrong words, and incondite grammar structures create false logical relationships that misrepresent the relationships intended.

Ir could be said that complete higher order thinking is a collection of interacting systems: a diction system, a grammar system, a system of logic, a system of cognitive operations, and others beyond the scope of this article. (Mental operations in the affective domain, for example, are possibly stereotyped as nonintellectual, but appropriate affective reactions to other intellectual phenomena are fundamental indications of deep comprehension.)


High-level word use of the kind necessary in critical thinking or creative writing involves more than the common task of finding a usable word that has approximately the right meaning. Certainly, this is part of what is involved, but a closer look at the behavior of words in thought reveals much more subtle and complex roles for words.

Reading as Word Use

One form of word use that may escape notice is the way the intelligence uses words during reading. Many discussions of word use center on the generation of words by our internal thought, but, in fact, the encounter with individual words that takes place during reading is also a form of word use, and an interesting one.

In our encounter with printed words, we respond in several ways. One response is word recognition, ranging from the subconscious recognition of a well-known word, to the appreciation of a well-known word freshly used ("Shut up, he explained"), to the appreciative recognition of a word understood, but rarely encountered. A second response is nonrecognition, ranging from a barely perceptible awareness of an unknown word we skip over, to the full curiosity stop we make when we focus on the unknown word, work out its pronunciation, examine it for elements of familiarity or kinship with known words, or even pursue the word into the dictionary, to the study of its meanings and etymology. …