Sunday, March 3, 2013

"Sequestration" and the Complexity of Word Knowledge

Sequestration is upon us. Specific budget cuts will be announced, and for each nonexempt federal program, this will be carried out by some kind of Edward Sequester Hands. The incisions will be felt most by the unemployed and the furloughed, and I expect they won't be happy about it. In fact, the tune might go something like this:
It's sequestered we are, and sequestered we stay,
Till the debt is defrayed with the taxes we pay.
But we know it will take till the Reckoning Day.
The future's furloughed till the Reckoning Day.
The devil to pay till the Reckoning Day!

The sequester. Will it work? Hope so, but only time will tell. One positive outcome is already certain: Americans have been expanding their vocabulary. According to Google Trends constrained to the USA, interested folks have been "googling" definitions of sequestration and sequester, as the chart below shows (100 is peak search volume).

So, the nation is learning this word. However, in "Letting Sequester Fester" -- published in Word Routes  only 12 days ago -- linguist Ben Zimmer is a tad cautious:
"A bigger problem is that most people still don't know what sequester means; as Time's Katy Steinmetz noted, a poll in The Hill indicated that 25 percent of voters said that they didn't know what sequester referred to, while almost 40 percent guessed the wrong answer." (See poll results).
Ben's concern is well founded, at least in my case. Who knew sequestration had anything to do with spending? I did not, until recently. Prior to 2012,  the main context I had for sequester derived from movies like Runaway Jury and high profile court cases, where jurors are sequestered in hotel rooms lest they become tainted, bribed, biased.

In addition to the courtroom context, I may have happened upon sequester in a few other places. In the sports column for the Seattle Times:

"Outside of Daytona, teams are rarely sequestered at one track for five days"

In literature I may have run across Phillpotts (1920):

"Time rings his rounds and forgets not this sequestered hollow."

That's a beautiful line, and even memorable, but still I did not associate sequester with the economy. So how did I learn about fiscal sequestration? The same way we learn many words -- from a variety of context, supported by an accessible definition. Yes, I am among the "googlers" mentioned above. Now I know this other meaning of sequestration. I also know sequester, used as a verb, to sequester, and also as a noun, the sequester (the verb was only recently converted into a noun, through a process described in a prior post).

So what?


My own processing -- or learning -- of this word rather neatly flows with the five aspects of word complexity discussed in a chapter by vocabulary experts William Nagy and Judith Scott (2000). The five aspects that describe the complexity of word knowledge often overlap. All five aspects may not apply to every word.  According to the scholars, educators need to consider the following when teaching any given word:

1) Incrementality: As I have personally experienced with sequester, we do not immediately gain full understanding of a word meaning, but instead, we gradually and incrementally refine our knowledge, through various encounters with the concept, in varied context. As long as I only encountered sequester in the context of a jury, my grasp was limited. Teaching implications: Revisit words over time, in varied genres, applications, and uses. Provide for distributed practice. Avoid "vocabulary cramming" for a test.

2) Polysemy: Many words have more than one meaning, as we have seen with sequester. The most commonly used meaning is the one we are most likely to know. Teaching implications: Help students attend to context to grasp meaning. Explicitly teach multiple meanings. Teach dictionary use. Teach the metalinguistic notion that word meanings are flexible, and apt to change.

3. Multidimensionality: Words are learned along various dimensions. These dimensions may overlap.  Teaching implications: Help students pronounce the word, read it, spell it, use it correctly in terms of grammar and syntax.  Teach the conceptual meaning and its associations with other words, including morphological relationships, discussed below. Help students attend to collocations -- the words the target word "hangs out" with, including the little-noticed words: "in" sequestration, for one example. Discuss style and register. Sequestration is more formal than budget cuts and likely to be used in academic discourse. To develop a formal register within a discipline, try some of the "Accountable Talk" strategies discussed by Dr. Zygouris-Coe in a prior post.

Visual Thesaurus
4. Interrelatedness: Knowing one meaning actually implies that we know other related meanings. That should be more than evident with sequestration.  Teaching implications: Students are unlikely to understand budget sequestration unless they already understand the simple concepts of save and keep, and more abstract concepts, like reduce, withhold, percentage, budget, etc. Build on prior learning, and convey word relationships (synonyms, antonyms, derivations, conceptual or thematic clusters, etc.). Help students learn to use a dictionary and thesaurus, to further deepen their understanding.

5. Heterogenity: Words vary in complexity, and so do word learners. The content word sequestration is more complex than the content term budget cuts, and far more complex than the function word within. Teaching implications: Provide differentiated instruction, depending on the word, and depending on the learner.


Learning about how words are formed with roots and affixes is part of developing metalinguistic insight, and as such, it promotes both vocabulary and comprehension. Because vocabulary growth hinges on an understanding of word structure, Nagy and Scott (2000) claim the following, in the same chapter discussed above:

 "It is hard to overstate the importance of morphology in vocabulary growth" (p. 275)

With sequester, older students could explore the family of words that flow from the Latin root, which means something like, 'to place in safe keeping' (see Robertson).  Partners could discuss the semantic overlap across these morphologically related words and analyze the word structure to see how the different suffixes and prefixes, smacked onto the root, modify the meaning and/or grammatical word class (noun, verb, adjective, or adverb).
sequester     sequestration     sequestrator     sequestrate     sequestral   
sequestrant     sequestrable      unsequestrable     unsequestered 

Sequestrate words in isolated study lists? Not sound practice. Provide some context and a student-friendly definition. Explore morphological families of words.

Work together with a peer, practicing how to pronounce difficult words. Like sequestration. Now that's a tricky one. A tongue twister. Gain confidence and competence. Then use the word in formal, academic discourse.

I've been sequestered in my office long enough. Best wishes, until next time.

Nagy, W. E., & Scott, J. A. (2000). Vocabulary processes. In M. L. Kamil, P. B. Mosenthal, P. D. Pearson, & R. Barr (Eds.), Handbook of reading research: Volume II (pp. 269–284). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

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  1. Susan, Thank you for this reminder of best vocab instruction practices - it was a very clever blog that I enjoyed reading!

    1. Thanks, Joan. I am glad you enjoyed it! I rather enjoyed writing it. Best wishes with your excellent work with vocabulary and comprehension.

  2. Donna Peterson3/04/2013

    Great poem, Susan! You're right, sequestration is a tongue twister. :D
    Is sequester related to request, inquest, bequest, conquest, etc?

    1. Good question, Donna. At this point references suggest that the root of sequestration is sequest, not simply quest. I would have thought the same as you, though.

      Here are five pages of words with various forms of the root of "reQUEST"

      Glad you enjoyed the poem. ツ

  3. Jessie Franklin3/07/2013

    Ha! A mix of poetry and research. Only on Vocabulogic! I miss the days when you published every week, Susan. Thank you!

  4. Anonymous3/09/2013

    So I perceived sequester to mean to 'sit apart or isolate'- and I thought what's new about that? Our congress has been in sequester forever! But sequester is now referring to budget cuts- 'If sequestration occurs, $1.2 trillion in spending reductions are required from FY 2013 through 2021.' That just solidifies my perceived meaning of sequester- separating one group from another- sequestering programs that benefit the poor (which in turn sequesters, or isolates the poor.) What am I missing?

    Your poem is great- that helped a lot. It is a confusing situation. Thanks for your post!

    1. Good point, Anonymous! Thanks for the note. Glad you enjoyed the post (and the poem). ツ

  5. Judy Butler3/21/2013

    Of all the vocabulogic posts, I think this is my favorite! You've deepened the fascination I think we've all had with the mystery of this word's meaning, and at the same time also captured the fear of the unknown power this sequestration may have upon us. I hear your voice so clearly.

    1. Good to know, Judy! I appreciate the affirmation.

      Best to you!



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