“Toil” and “Coy:” Brilliant or Insane?

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When he was a third-grader, my son came to me one day, frustrated with a homework assignment on vocabulary words. In his basal reader program, the vocabulary is taught in isolation — a seemingly fruitless endeavor.

This particular activity was more troubling than most. There was a list containing several vocabulary words he didn’t know. The assignment instructed students to place the vocabulary word next to its synonym.

I asked him if he’d learned the words previously. “No,” he replied. Hmm. Sounded strange. How are you supposed to know the synonyms, I inquired. He shrugged.

Without droning on about the uselessness of homework, let me say that the idea of asking a student to locate synonyms for words he hasn’t learned, without the help of context clues, is beyond foolish.

If you agree that this is an act of futility, you’ll love the coup de grâce. The words in question were, “coy” and “toil.” When is the last time you heard a 9-year-old use these? For that matter, when is the last time you used them?

So, what do you think about vocabulary in isolation? Brilliant or Insane? Let us know in the comment section below.

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Mark Barnes is the author of many education books, including Bestseller Hacking Education, part of his Hack Learning Series, books that solve big problems with simple ideas. Barnes presents internationally on assessment, connected education, and student-centered learning. Join more than 100,000 interested educators who follow @markbarnes19 on Twitter.
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