Many a child can point-and-click her way through a Sesame Street computer game before she can read. And plenty of young teenagers can build websites or even crack computer code.
Children often know far more than their parents do about new technology. But their ability to tell others about those achievements in eloquent terms may be suffering. Just ask anyone who's received an off-the-cuff e-mail from a teenager or has fled the dinner table as "like" is peppered six times into one sentence.
Bruce Penniman, an English teacher at Amherst Regional High School in Amherst, Mass., says students know more technical words than when he started teaching 30 years ago, but their knowledge of traditional vocabulary is waning. "The English language is promiscuous in its adoption of new words," he says. As the language grows, vocabularies will evolve to include more new words and fewer traditional ones.
But he doesn't attribute the shift exclusively to the influence of technology.
"There is so much more that is expected now," Mr. Penniman says. The curriculum has evolved during his tenure to include new skills, but at the same time, nothing has been taken away. As a result, some subjects receive less attention than they once did.
Still, Penniman says that for him and his colleagues, "vocabulary work is still a high priority."
Others worry, however, that specific attention to developing a substantive vocabulary is increasingly rare. Diane Ravitch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute in Washington and author of numerous books on education, says that in the 1960s, both verbal and math SAT scores fell. Math scores have since rebounded, but verbal scores have not made as much progress.
Ms. Ravitch attributes today's feeble scores to high-schoolers' poor vocabularies, and says the whole-language movement is a key culprit.
The movement, which has long been controversial and is in many ways falling out of favor, advocates the teaching of language totally in context. Spelling, vocabulary, and grammar are not studied separately, but are absorbed while students are reading.
The problem with this approach to teaching English, Ravitch says, is that "you're limited to the language that kids already know." She insists that students need to study each part of the language individually.
"If you were to study a foreign language, you would study vocabulary," she says. "We should do the same with our own language."
But others don't pin the issue on any one approach to teaching. Penniman, for example, does not believe that all linguistic instruction needs to be done by breaking the language down into parts.
He does, however, have his students study words after encountering them in a text. His students learn the meaning of the word and are required to define it in their own terms and use it correctly in context. But Penniman does not insist that his students memorize dictionary definitions.
Penniman says his students have probably already encountered the words he includes in his vocabulary assignments, but adds that they are "a stretch." He does not include words he thinks are so obscure that his students wouldn't encounter them again.
A recent list he assigned his ninth-grade class included such words as beguiling, flouting, insolence, indignation, and audacity.
In the age of technology, some say, it may seem less obvious to students that an impressive vocabulary and strong communication skills are important. More traditional cues, such as handwritten memos and references books, are no longer as common.
But technology may, in fact, demand more in this regard. "The technology age requires exactness," Ravitch notes. "If you use a computer and misspell a word, you can't find the Web page you're looking for. Computers teach that precision counts."
Furthermore, even in the computer age, "people judge you by your vocabulary," she says. "Having a large vocabulary and using it well is the sign of an educated person."
Ravitch says that teaching language skills and technical skills are not opposed to each other. But she insists that, "there is no substitute for reading" when it comes to learning vocabulary.
On this, Penniman agrees. He says that while reading online newspapers or magazines may be a good way to interest children in reading, other shortcuts that the Web provides may hinder learning. Online dictionaries, for example, are so easy to use that students can just "cut and paste" definitions into their homework. Penniman urges his students to look up words in the old-fashioned book version of the dictionary.
Ravitch and Penniman also agree that parents need to set good examples for their children by being readers themselves and discussing current events.
"There's a lot of rich vocabulary in the world," Penniman says. We just have to make sure our kids know how to use it."
Gerrymander. Fatuous. Impeach.
What do these words have in common? They are included in the American Heritage College Dictionary's list of "100 Words Every High School Graduate and Their Parents Should Know." Steve Kleinedler, senior editor of the dictionary, says the list was created to inspire people to pick up a dictionary and improve their vocabularies.
The list isn't just "words for words," Mr. Kleinedler says, but "words as concepts as well." Kleinedler and the company's etymologist sat down with a dictionary and developed a list of 100 words to represent every area of study they believe high school graduates should be familiar with.
Political science is represented by filibuster, impeach, and gerrymander; genetics by gamete and chromosome. Photosynthesis represents botany; pecuniary and fiduciary were included to highlight the study of economics. Suffragist, yeoman, and kowtow are on the list in honor of history and social studies.
Students' knowledge of geometry is tested by parabola and hypotenuse, and their literary vocabularies are tested with words such as vacuous, winnow, and irony.
The list does not "hit a lot of pop-culture terms," Kleinedler says. He includes most Internet and new-technology terms in this category because he says these words are more social than academic in nature. But don't despair, tech fans. Computer science wasn't completely abandoned they threw in nanotechnology for good measure.
Kleinedler doesn't see this as a list of 100 words to be memorized, but rather a measuring stick of a graduate's education.
"As a representative sample, if you know these terms, you've had a well-grounded education," he says. On the other hand, if many of the words are unfamiliar, it could be a sign of not only a weak vocabulary, but a deficient education. Kleinedler's suggested remedy? "Read voraciously. When you come to a term you don't know, look it up."
Many of these words may be a stretch for a portion of the high school population, Kleinedler says. But, "I would hope that most students would be familiar with these words. By pitching this a little high, it might give students something to strive for."