Newspaper article Gympie Times, The Qld.

Redefining Our Literacy

Newspaper article Gympie Times, The Qld.

Redefining Our Literacy

Article excerpt


SHAKESPEARE is believed to have had a working vocabulary of between 20 to 30 thousand words, of which he used only 15,000 individually in his writings. His nodding acquaintance with Greek, Latin and French may have expanded his functional vocabulary well beyond his actual English vocabulary, not withstanding the jibe that he knew little Latin and less Greek.

Without doubt he is the most famous of English writers and deservedly revered in the history of literature. Compared to our expectations of a modern high school student, Shakespeare was barely functionally literate. To survive in the modern world, a seventh grader requires a functional vocabulary of thirteen thousand words.

An adequately prepared high school graduate needs around 45,000, three times as large as contained in all of the works of the Bard.

The brighter students have a vocabulary as high as 120,000. We do not notice this. In spite of our tendency to under estimate our word hoard, as most adults have sufficient acquaintance with the 450,000 stem words recorded in the Oxford dictionary to at least be able to recognise them as an English word and hazard a guess at their meaning if unfamiliar.

We need this to survive with a language estimated to have an overall vocabulary of two million individual words. Why is this vastly expanded vocabulary necessary and expected of children whose brains are certainly no bigger than Shakespeare's?

For a start, only 20 per cent of the occupations for which our seventh grader has a word existed in Shakespearean times. There were no computers and most of our current professions were either non existent or unrecognizable.

Shakespeare had no concept of a policeman, ambulance officer, postman, paramedic or fireman; all words a grade one student needs to know. No electrical, engine driven or flying machinery, existed in Elizabethan England. Those words have been invented along with the machines they describe in the centuries since. Shakespeare's engineer was a man who built siege engines, his mechanic a general term for anyone who built contrivances like carts, waterwheels and mills.

Shakespeare's rude mechanical was the Elizabethan trailer trash, unless of course the gypsies were in town. It was still possible for one man to know all there was to know.

Currently our total of knowledge expands exponentially over the period of a decade; Shakespeare's doubled once in every couple of centuries. Science was a concept unfamiliar to the Bard in any form that we would recognise.

Even Shakespeare's beloved theatre was not one we would recognise. There was no proscenium arch stage or orchestra pit. No curtains rose and fell; encores were unheard of as most of the population spoke no French.

Throwing hazel nuts at the actors was a recognised expression of boredom and the plays sometimes became interactive to the point of riot. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.