Reading, Personal Choice, and Measurable Vocabulary Growth — A Panic-Driven Frugality-Learning System

Jul 21, 2011 by

Robert Oliphan

“But Bob, if students learn by reading books, what will be left for the teachers to do?” Back in 1995, my department chair’s elegant “follow the money” reasoning was like a bureaucratic cold shower in dampening my enthusiasm for a proposed remedial reading grant. Nor was I greatly surprised later on to learn over a year later that our university’s Committee on Human Subjects had actually ruled in a secret meeting that I must not involve officially designated English-as-a-Second Language students in my second grant from the Fund for the Advancement of Post-Secondary Education (FIPSE).

Since I was close to retirement and more of a team player than a malcontent, I backed off from on-campus litigation and spent my FIPSE money on anti-Alzheimer’s research and reading-impact tests. Today, though, our academic shift from “follow the money” to “what on earth has happened to our lovely budgets?” persuades me that teachers and educational leaders may now welcome a frugality-centered perspective on reading-based testing, especially for middle school students who worry about the size of their vocabularies.

W. EDWARDS DEMING AND ELECTRONIC LEXICOGRAPHY. . . . As most of us know, the traditional “weights and measures” department has been renamed “measurement standards” in many of our states thanks largely to W. Edwards Deming and his insistence upon higher and higher levels of accuracy and calibration in American measurement.

Going further, especially during the last five years, this insistence has fueled the success of our new electronic dictionaries, including, which is an open-access dictionary based upon the electronic version of the Random House Unabridged Dictionary. With 315,000 entries and 215,000 headword-pronunciation-definition combinations (“headeffs,” for short), is an ideal vocabulary testing tool, especially for American middle schoolers.

Visually considered, any middle schooler can identify each headeff in a college-level American dictionary by its headword’s use of lowercase boldface type along with its commanding position flush with the left hand margin in each column. Via this description the word DICTIONARY (it’s appropriate to use caps in referring to words as words) is clearly a headword, as opposed to the plural form “dictionaries” (also in boldface), which is indented as part of the DICTIONARY entry.

A STANDARD DICTIONARY-BASED QUESTION FORMAT. . . . “Please identify via spelling or speech the headword whose pronunciation is represented as /dik”sheuh ner’ee/ in and whose second definition (out of 3) is ‘a book giving information on particular subjects or on a particular class of words, names, or facts, usually arranged alphabetically.’”

Thanks to the consistency of this format, we and our middle schoolers can identify and quantify three elements of difficulty for each of our possible 215,000 questions. The first and most obvious is headword length: Certainly DICTIONARY with ten letters would be more difficult for middle schoolers to spell and pronounce than, say, RUN or JUMP. Similarly we can agree on the spelling/ pronunciation match as a difficulty factor, since only 2 of the first five letters in DICTIONARY match the letters in their pronunciation transcription, i.e., D and I out of the first five letters: D. I. K.S.H of [dik”sheuh ner’ee].

Going further, we can grant that the definition (number 2) cited for DICTIONARY is less familiar and hence more difficult than definition 1, i.e., “a book containing a selection of the words of a language, usually arranged alphabetically, giving information about their meanings, pronunciations, etymologies, inflected forms, etc.” Overall, then, we can add our three descriptive numbers (10, 2, and 2) to produce a composite difficulty score of 14 for this particular headword-pronunciation-definition combination.

MEASURING THE SIZE OF OUR VOCABULARIES. . . . Starting with “baby’s first word,” Americans have always worried about the size of their vocabularies, often rather clumsily, e.g., do we count “high school” as a word or not? But today, thanks to electronic lexicography, we now have an authoritatively defined question format to use in constructing authoritative sampling tests based upon equally authoritative dictionaries of what many offshore learners and teachers call Spoken Worldwide American Dictionary English (SWADE).

As far as sampling goes, our most practical tool is the American “college size” dictionary (1,500 pp.), e.g., American Heritage, Merriam Webster’s, Random House, and Webster’s New World. Despite variations in style, each of these contains roughly the same 60,000 “headeffs” (headword-pronunciation-definition combinations). This means that a random sample of 30 headeffs can give us an authoritative indication of our overall vocabulary size. For instance, 21 correct answers out of 30 (70%) would indicate a personal vocabulary of 42,000 words (70% of 60,000).

At this point any parent or friend can pick 30 headeffs at random out of a college-size dictionary and produce a statistically legitimate estimate of a middle schooler’s vocabulary size. More ambitiously, an examiner can download free of charge a 120 question pool via

To sum up for a moment: What’s here is a short article. But its claims are supported by the excellence of our American dictionaries, especially those which students in India, China, and the Middle East are now using to master Spoken Worldwide American Dictionary English (sometimes called Sina English and other nation-centered names).

To put it more strongly as a wake up call: After watching and hearing recent TV Interviews with Egyptian rioters and Japanese refugees, everyone I’ve talked with agrees that these non-Americans worldwide today speak standard American English far more forcefully and intelligibly than most of our own college students, crippled as they are by officially sanctioned dialectal varitions.

READING-BASED VOCABULARY BUILDING. . . . As described in the April 30th 2011 Economist, our new arts of “frugal innovation” require radical reductions in the cost of products while at the same time insisting that companies deliver first-class value. General Electric, for instance, has reduced the price of its electrocardiogram machine from $2,000 to $400; Tata Chemicals has produced a $24 purifier that can provide a family with pure water for a year. More ambitiously, Vijay Govindarajan (Dartmouth) has urged worldwide access to civilized housing (filters, solar panels, etc) with a construction cost of no more than $300.

Since and dictionary-based question-answer pools already meet our frugal testing requirement, all we need is a frugal personal-choice reading program for our middle schoolers. Read, read; test, test; smile, smile — the sequence can work for Americans of all ages, not just energetic middle schoolers.

The cheapest way to meet this goal is to make, say, fifty specific books available and let the youngsters choose their own reading. If they do enough of it, e.g., twenty 120,000-word “bokes clad in blak and white,” to echo Chaucer’s Clerk of Oxenford, we can dispense with book-based testing, since improved scores will identify the worker bees.

By way of illustration, let’s consider the 50-book purchase-availability list at As a model, this list’s emphasis upon nonfiction narrative (biography and history) meets middle-school readability requirements. As far as readability goes, the list also includes Pulitzer Prize winners like David McCullough, Carl van Doren, and Catherine Drinkwater Bowen (prolific favorites of mine over the years), along with classic authors like Thomas Paine, Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, Booker T. Washington, and others.

Other nonfiction narrative authors on this list draw from our legal tradition and center more upon adversarial persuasion, e.g., C.S. Lewis, Thomas Paine, Milton Friedman, and Patrick Buchanan. But as opposed to anthologies and textbooks, they also encourage fast personal-best reading page by page and measurable vocabulary growth. Best of all, nearly all of them are also available at neighborhood public libraries, e.g., Thousand Oaks, California.

By way of a personal experience side bar: Speaking generally, I feel book lists in general deserve a word of warning. Going back to the famous Harvard Classics, which included Calvin’s Institutes (totally unreadable), American book lists have always been tainted by prejudice and greed. This includes the Syntopicon and its choice of Sir Thomas Urquhart’s translation of Rabelais’ “Gargantua and Pantagruel.”

Since the Syntopicon, published by Encylopedia Brittanica, subtitles itself as “great books of the western world,” many trusting young people have read those books, one of whom complained to me some years back that the Syntopicon edition of Rabelais was “very hard to read.” By way making him feel better I pointed that this edition was first published in the sixteenth century and even then was a reader’s nightmare, since Thomas Urquhart (Syntopicon omits the clue provided by his title) coined his own new and incomprehensible English words by transliterating the French.

But why did Syntopicon choose Urquhart, who traced his own ancestry back to Adam and Eve, instead of the classic Samuel Putnam (1929) translation? As my student himself put it, Urquhart was cheaper than Putnam, who was under copyright, in addition to which the Syntopicon folks probably felt that nobody was actually going to read their stuff. . . . In contrast the Moral Liberal list, though somewhat conservative, is reader-friendly across the board, including its more offbeat doctrinaire books.

A pre-test of vocabulary size, a 20-book personally chosen reading program (2.4 million words), and a second vocabulary test for measuring the increase — my FIPSE-sponsored research indicates a 25,000-headeff vocabulary can expect a very satisfactory increase to at least 30,000. This may not seem impressive when measured against crossword virtuosos who log scores of 45,000 and higher. But it’s certainly a giant step toward personal-best progress and self esteem for many middle schoolers: high school and college dropouts, too.

DICTIONARY-BASED VOCABULARY TESTING AND SOCIAL URGENCY. . . . By way of pushing this envelope toward the desks of American decision makers, I would like to translate what’s here into the language of current social urgency with particular attention to our recession.

To expand the old saying: while a recession means our neighbor has lost his job, a national collapse means that most of our jobs have moved offshore, along with most of our money and even our language. This is to say that Spoken Worldwide American Dictionary English (SWADE) is now spoken and used skillfully by well over two billion residents on Planet Earth at a higher level than America’s own college students — measurably so!

The reason for this conquest can be summed up in two terms: TRIBALISM and PATRAMONIALISM, both of them recently featured in “The Origins of Political Order, a new book (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) by Francis Fukuyama, whose seminal “The End of History and the Last Man” has served is the bible of Reagan-style economics for the last 20 years. Fukuyama’s revisionist thesis, however, recognizes the danger of tribal dialects (X-English, Y-English, etc.) and loyalties as eroding American unity and economic effectiveness.
Even more dangerous, according to Fukuyama, is the substitute of patrimonial leadership (rich preppies, etc.) for leadership roles traditionally won by open competition in traditional “grading on the curve” settings. Where West Point and Harvard used to flunk out a third of their students, survival rates have climbed to over 80% (when I was a visiting associate prof at Stanford, for instance, the average grade had already climbed to B and is now A minus, just like Harvard’s).
Traditionally, going back to Noah Webster and then the “platform speech” standard of the 1934 Miriam Webster’s, American debate and enunciation skills were once world famous (Churchill wrote that he learned his craft as a speaker from the American Bourke Cockran). At a time when we’re in danger of being conquered from outside by our own language, a revival of dirt cheap dictionary-based vocabulary testing might take us very far toward re-establishing both national consensus and competitive confidence.
TO CONCLUDE. . . . The USA has never won by playing against itself with a stacked deck. What’s here does not constitute a New Deal in the Rooseveltian sense. But its frugal and authoritative approach (based on W. Edwards Deming and American lexicography) certainly can play that role for many middle schoolers. Why, then, shouldn’t their parents and our leaders take what’s here seriously — as opposed to pretending those “Cadillac Man” voices peddling high-priced goods originate in Chicago, not Manila or Mumbai.
NOTE: Robert Oliphant earned a PhD in English Philology at Stanford (1962) under Herbert Dean Meritt. His best known book is the anti-Alzheimer’s “A Piano for Mrs. Cimino” (1980), a film version of which won a Monte Carlo award for Bette Davis, and whose foreign-language versions are still being shown worldwide. His current eBooks are available via An emeritus professor of English at Cal State Northridge, he is a WWII vet (air corps) and lives in Thousand Oaks, California.

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