Words to Make Us Wiser

JBL-headshot for blog

Jennifer Brown Lerner, Deputy Director

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my involvement in education, it’s that precision around language matters. From third grade through twelfth grade, I had weekly spelling and vocabulary instruction and tests using a curriculum called Wordly Wise. Granted it’s a silly name, but the curriculum was built around the concept that building a robust vocabulary allows students to better comprehend content area texts. While I dreaded our tests, I had no idea how valuable my intense study of vocabulary would prove to be.

We can all agree that many words have similar meanings, but there is usually a precise, perfectly on-target word that helps paint a picture of what you want your reader to understand. For example, in education we often use the word “proficient” to describe a student’s ability on a test as this word connotes both a level of mastery and acknowledgement that a student is ready to move on. The precise meaning of words comes up regularly in conversations with colleagues. If I say college, do you automatically assume I’m talking about a four-year degree? Could I mean any form of postsecondary education or training that leads to a credential or do I need to use the phrase postsecondary education?

Struggling with the precision of words is something that has been a thread throughout my time at AYPF. One of my first projects was writing a compendium on secondary-postsecondary learning opportunities (SPLO), a term that we coined to ideally encompass all types of programs that allow secondary students to access postsecondary courses. We thought we were so clever with our SPLO acronym. “Finally, we’ve solved the debate on how to collectively refer to AP, IB, dual credit, dual enrollment, and early/middle college high school.” Alas, we didn’t start a movement and continue to struggle with terminology like others in the field. And, don’t get me started on afterschool and out-of-school time because that could be a blog post of its own!

Perhaps it is time for the education community to adopt its own version of Wordly Wise to help give clarity to terms and concepts unique to our field. My suggestion would be that we call it Educator Etymons*. What would you call it? Join the conversation by tweeting your suggestions to @AYPF_Tweets using #forumforthought or contacting the author via email.

*The author would like to acknowledge that she knows and uses this term because of Wordly Wise.




The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF events and publications are made possible by contributions from philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.