A Word Is A Word...Or Is It?


44 pages
Contains Illustrations
ISBN 0-590-71505-4





Reviewed by Edward L. Edmonds

Edward L. Edmonds is a professor of education at the University of
Prince Edward Island and an honorary chief of the Lennox Island
Mi’kmaq of Prince Edward Island.


No one doubts the author’s claim that he finds words fascinating. Nevertheless, this paperback booklet on the teaching of vocabulary is hardly worth his efforts. Perhaps the culprit is the editor. Dr. Graves tells us his instructions were to keep the book simple: “no academic jargon, no five-syllable words, no obscure references.” The result is disaster. Throughout, the style is chatty, facetious, flippant, well-sprinkled with a different jargon (e.g., biffy, spiffy, toughy, dilly, aha, you’re terrific). Truisms abound. No one doubts that “readers learn to read by reading” or that “a great many English words have multiple meanings.” The author states that estimates of vocabulary of children entering school range from 2,000 to 20,000, but adds quite cheerfully, “the important point is that even if the larger figure is accepted, there are a lot more words to be learned”! Elsewhere, in making his point, Dr. Graves assures us “this seems so obvious that no wracking of my brains can produce much more to say.” The book contains a number of these little personal anecdotes so beloved of writers of educational textbooks. Clear, succinct definitions of some of the terms used would be helpful to the reading audience for which this booklet is presumably intended. The cartoon sketches, for which provision is made on every page, whether used or not, are not always immediately relevant to the text and may even distract attention from it. Much of the pedagogy in the book is soundly based on the author’s own classroom experience, but the Keyword Method has its limitations. For example, the steps taken to reach the meaning of the word carlin (also carline in some dictionaries) seem suspect in that they build into the word a new contextual meaning to the possible occlusion of the original meanings. In this respect, a section on the use of dictionaries, and on the various dictionaries available at differing grade levels, would have been a valuable addition to the book. The author’s precise aim is not always clear. At one time he tells us his aim has been “to provide you with the information and the understanding that will enable you to select appropriate words to teach to students and appropriate methods with which to teach them.” But this (ambiguous?) statement conflicts with an earlier sentence that “explaining teaching methods isn’t the purpose of this book.” At the end, three books are mentioned to which the author says he has made extensive reference in his own text. Then follows an alphabetical list of 17 authors whose works may be consulted “in a university or reference library.” One attractive feature of this book is its front cover photo, by Wayne Sproule. For this 44-page booklet, the price of $7.95 would seem to be on the high side.


Graves, Michael, “A Word Is A Word...Or Is It?,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed December 7, 2023, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/36222.