Thursday, June 27, 2013

Poetry, Science, and Vocabulary

One of the barriers, scholars have noted, facing a large number of students from struggling backgrounds is known as the "word gap." That is, due to a range of factors, some young people and then adults are underexposed to words and a broad vocabulary, and the discrepancies in language acquisition between groups of people apparently affects multiple professional and social outcomes.

I've been spending considerable time thinking through the notion of that word gap as well as how assignments in my poetry courses might assist students in extending their vocabularies. Consequently, the Science Genius competition last week gave me additional ideas. The experience of listening to 15 and 16-year-olds expressing a fairly broad body of scientific terms in the course of presenting raps gave me a clearer sense of how the composition of lyrics or poetry might be used to expand word usage.

The performances by the students also reminded me that the "word gap" premise is limited in the sense that the concept overlooks what some people with seemingly low vocabularies actually do with wording and phrasing. Although some people have less words, they are still capable of verbal dexterity, for instance.

Still, science is one of many discourses that might provide students in a poetry course with opportunities to expand their vocabularies. Poets have long displayed an interest in nature, so what if, as was the case with those high school students, that interest in nature was explored based on the language and discourse of geology, physics, biology, chemistry, or astronomy? For those young people, approaching the study of the sciences with the view that they would later translate what they were learning into poems and raps gave them added incentive to grasp and manipulate new words and concepts.
Although people have long discussed the "power of language" exemplified in poems, we have not done enough to discuss just how poetry might assist students in expanding their vocabularies. Perhaps we should begin taking more opportunities to do so.

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