Vocabulary; Twenty Definitions 3600 Words
PROCEDURE. Use the list of words given in the record booklet. Say to the
child: "_I want to find out how many words you know. Listen; and when I
say a word you tell me what it means._" If the child can read, give him
a printed copy of the word list and let him look at each word as you
The words are arranged approximately (though not exactly) in the order
of their difficulty, and it is best t
begin with the easier words and
proceed to the harder. With children under 9 or 10 years, begin with the
first. Apparently normal children of 10 years may safely be credited
with the first ten words without being asked to define them. Apparently
normal children of 12 may begin with word 16, and 15-year-olds with
word 21. Except with subjects of almost adult intelligence there is no
need to give the last ten or fifteen words, as these are almost never
correctly defined by school children. A safe rule to follow is to
continue until eight or ten successive words have been missed and to
score the remainder _minus_ without giving them.
The formula is as follows: "What is an _orange_?" "What is a _bonfire_?"
"_Roar_; what does _roar_ mean?" "_Gown_; what is a _gown_?" "What does
_tap_ mean?" "What does _scorch_ mean?" "What is a _puddle_?" etc.
Some children at first show a little hesitation about answering,
thinking that a strictly formal definition is expected. In such cases a
little encouragement is necessary; as: "_You know what a bonfire is. You
have seen a bonfire. Now, what is a bonfire?_" If the child still
hesitates, say: "_Just tell me in your own words; say it any way you
please. All I want is to find out whether you know what a bonfire is._"
Do not torture the child, however, by undue insistence. If he persists
in his refusal to define a word which he would ordinarily be expected to
know, it is better to pass on to the next one and to return to the
troublesome word later. Above all, avoid helping the child by
illustrating the use of a word in a sentence. Adhere strictly to the
formula given above. If the definition as given does not make it clear
whether the child has the correct idea, say: "_Explain_," or, "_I don't
understand; explain what you mean._"
Encourage the child frequently by saying: "That's fine. You are doing
beautifully. You know lots of words," etc. Never tell the child his
definition is not correct, and never ask for a different definition.
Avoid saying anything which would suggest a model form of definition, as
the type of definition which the child spontaneously chooses throws
interesting light on the degree of maturity of the apperceptive
processes. Record all definitions _verbatim_ if possible, or at least
those which are exceptionally good, poor, or doubtful.
SCORING. Credit a response in full if it gives one correct meaning for
the word, regardless of whether that meaning is the most common one, and
regardless of whether it is the original or a derived meaning.
Occasionally half credit may be given, but this should be avoided as far
To find the entire vocabulary, multiply the number of words known by
180. (This list is made up of 100 words selected by rule from a
dictionary containing 18,000 words.) Thus, the child who defines
20 words correctly has a vocabulary of 20 x 180 = 3600 words; 50 correct
definitions would mean a vocabulary of 9000 words, etc. The following
are the standards for different years, as determined by the vocabulary
reached by 60 to 65 per cent of the subjects of the various mental
8 years 20 words vocabulary 3,600
10 years 30 words vocabulary 5,400
12 years 40 words vocabulary 7,200
14 years 50 words vocabulary 9,000
Average adult 65 words vocabulary 11,700
Superior adult 75 words vocabulary 13,500
Although the form of the definition is significant, it is not taken into
consideration in scoring. The test is intended to explore the range of
ideas rather than the evolution of thought forms. When it is evident
that the child has one fairly correct meaning for a word, he is given
full credit for it, however poorly the definition may have been stated.
While there is naturally some difficulty now and then in deciding
whether a given definition is correct, this happens much less frequently
than one would expect. In order to get a definite idea of the extent of
error due to the individual differences among examiners, we have had the
definitions of 25 subjects graded independently by 10 different persons.
The result showed an average difference below 3 in the number of
definitions scored _plus_. Since these subjects attempted on an average
about 60 words, the average number of doubtful definitions per subject
was below 5 per cent of the number attempted.
An idea of the degree of leniency to be exercised may be had from the
following examples of definitions, which are mostly of low grade, but
acceptable unless otherwise indicated:--
1. _Orange._ "An orange is to eat." "It is yellow and grows on a
tree." (Both full credit.)
2. _Bonfire._ "You burn it outdoors." "You burn some leaves or
things." "It's a big fire." (All full credit.)
3. _Roar._ "A lion roars." "You holler loud." (Full credit.)
4. _Gown._ "To sleep in." "It's a nightie." "It's a nice gown that
ladies wear." (All full credit.)
7. _Puddle._ "You splash in it." "It's just a puddle of water."
(Both full credit.)
9. _Straw._ "It grows in the field." "It means wheat-straw." "The
horses eat it." (All full credit.)
10. _Rule._ "The teacher makes rules." "It means you can't do
something." "You make marks with it," i.e., a ruler, often
called a _rule_ by school children. (All full credit.)
11. _Afloat._ "To float on the water." "A ship floats." (Both full
12. _Eyelash._ If the child says, "It's over the eye," tell him to
point to it, as often the word is confused with _eyebrow_.
14. _Copper._ "It's a penny." "It means some copper wire." (Both
15. _Health._ "It means good health or bad health." "It means
strong." (Both full credit.)
17. _Guitar._ "You play on it." (Full credit.)
18. _Mellow._ If the child says, "It means a mellow apple," ask
what kind of apple that would be. For full credit the answer
must be "soft," "mushy," etc.
19. _Pork._ If the answer is "meat," ask what animal it comes
from. Half credit if wrong animal is named.
21. _Plumbing._ "You fix pipes." (Full credit.)
25. _Southern._ If the answer is "Southern States," or
"Southern California," say: "_Yes; but what does 'southern'
mean?_" Do not credit unless explanation is forthcoming.
26. _Noticeable._ "You notice a thing." (Full credit.)
29. _Civil._ "Civil War." (Failure unless explained.) "It means to
be nice." (Full credit.)
30. _Treasury._ Give half credit for definitions like "Valuables,"
"Lots of money," etc.; i.e., if the word is confused with
32. _Ramble._ "To go about fast." (Half credit.)
38. _Nerve._ Half credit if the slang use is defined, "You've got
41. _Majesty._ "What you say to a king." (Full credit.)
45. _Sportive._ "To like sports." (Half credit.) "Playful" or
"happy." (Full credit.)
46. _Hysterics._ "You laugh and cry at the same time." "A kind of
sickness." "A kind of fit." (All full credit.)
48. _Repose._ "You pose again." (Failure.)
52. _Coinage._ "A place where they make money." (Half credit.)
56. _Dilapidated._ "Something that's very old." (Half credit.)
58. _Conscientious._ "You're careful how you do your work." (Full
60. _Artless._ "No art." (Failure unless correctly explained.)
61. _Priceless._ "It has no price." (Failure.)
66. _Promontory._ "Something prominent." (Failure unless child can
explain what it refers to.)
68. _Milksop._ "You sop up milk." (Failure.)
73. _Harpy._ "A kind of bird." (Full credit.)
80. _Exaltation._ "You feel good." (Full credit.)
85. _Retroactive._ "Acting backward." (Full credit.)
92. _Theosophy._ "A religion." (Full credit.)
It is seen from the above examples that a very liberal standard has been
used. Leniency in judging definitions is necessary because the child's
power of expression lags farther behind his understanding than is true
of adults, and also because for the young subject the word has a
relatively less unitary existence.
REMARKS. Our vocabulary test was derived by selecting the last word
of every sixth column in a dictionary containing approximately
18,000 words, presumably the 18,000 most common words in the language.
The test is based on the assumption that 100 words selected according to
some arbitrary rule will be a large enough sampling to afford a fairly
reliable index of a subject's entire vocabulary. Rather extensive
experimentation with this list and others chosen in a similar manner
has proved that the assumption is justified. Tests of the same
75 individuals with five different vocabulary tests of this type showed
that the average difference between two tests of the same person was
less than 5 per cent. This means that any one of the five tests used is
reliable enough for all practical purposes. It is of no special
importance that a given child's vocabulary is 8000 rather than 7600; the
significance lies in the fact that it is approximately 8000 and not
4000, 12,000, or some other widely different number.
It may seem to the reader almost incredible that so small a sampling of
words would give a reliable index of an individual's vocabulary. That it
does so is due to the operation of the ordinary laws of chance. It is
analogous to predicting the results of an election when only a small
proportion of the ballots have been counted. It is known that a ballot
box contains 600 votes, and if when only 30 have been counted it is
found that they are divided between two candidates in the proportion of
20 and 10, it is safe to predict that a complete count will give the two
candidates approximately 400 and 200 respectively.In 1914 about
1,000,000 votes were cast for governor in California, and when only
10,000 votes had been counted, or a hundredth of all, it was announced
and conceded that Governor Johnson had been reelected by the 150,000
plurality. The completed count gave him 188,505 plurality. The error was
less than 4 per cent of the total vote.
The vocabulary test has a far higher value than any other single test of
the scale. Used with children of English-speaking parents (with children
whose home language is not English it is of course unreliable), it
probably has a higher value than any three other tests in the scale. Our
statistics show that in a large majority of cases the vocabulary test
alone will give us an intelligence quotient within 10 per cent of that
secured by the entire scale. Out of hundreds of English-speaking
children we have not found one testing significantly above age who had a
significantly low vocabulary; and correspondingly, those who test much
below age never have a high vocabulary.
Occasionally, however, a subject tests somewhat higher or lower in
vocabulary than the mental age would lead us to expect. This is often
the case with dull children in cultured homes and with very intelligent
children whose home environment has not stimulated language development.
But even in these cases we are not seriously misled, for the dull child
of fortunate home surroundings shows his dullness in the quality of his
definitions if not in their quantity; while the bright child of
illiterate parents shows his intelligence in the aptness and accuracy of
We have not worked out a satisfactory method of scoring the quality of
definitions in our vocabulary test, but these differences will be
and definitions which are slightly inaccurate or hazy are quite
characteristic of the lower mental ages. Children of the lower mental
age have also a tendency to venture wild guesses at words they do not
know. This is especially characteristic of retarded subjects and is
another example of their weakness of auto-criticism. One feeble-minded
boy of 12 years, with a mental age of 8 years, glibly and confidently
gave definitions for every one of the hundred words. About 70 of the
definitions were pure nonsense.
This vocabulary test was arranged and partially standardized by Mr.
H. G. Childs and the writer in 1911. Many experiments since then have
proved its value as a test of intelligence.