Thursday, March 21, 2013

If you Work with Words...

Words spread across a page, scrawled on a note or spilling out from a person's mouth have so much power. Carefully or carelessly chosen, words can move us. Teachers facing the implementation of the Common Core Standards know that we have to look at vocabulary in new and different ways. I am not going to go indepth on those standards but rather, offer a few observations and tools from my own experience.

Recently I walked into the Reading Intervention class I was teaching and handed every student a white board and marker. I started saying words and asking them to draw a simple picture of what came to their mind when they heard the word. This was one student's offering for the word parallel.

 I kept tossing out words and several students asked, "Can we do this all period?" The students who typically weren't at ease with words were shining like stars with this task. I gave them the word "bifurcate" and a couple of kids recognizing the prefix bi- wrote a number 2 on their board. The rest just said, "BifurWHAT?" We stopped and talked about how a person can't have a visual image of a word, if they don't know the meaning. I went on to tell them how I learned the word from an old boyfriend, one who eventually bifurcated my heart, so my image is a heart with a line down the center.

So, regarding vocabulary, I love having kids draw their own understanding of the words they come across and sharing them with each other for several reasons: students are actively engaged, teachers get a quick preassessment of student understanding, seeing each other's ideas deepens understanding. When I gave the kids the word "greedy" it was interesting to see what their ideas were. We shared images of a huge diamond ring, someone eating another person's food, and a smattering of dollar signs. It was a time of discovery for me to see what ideas and background knowledge my students brought into the classroom. 

Whenever we start teaching anything, I've learned we have to start with the vocabulary. In this same class, a student had just been through a math lesson involving expressions and equations. He was trying to do his math lesson and he didn't know the difference between the two. "How did I get to this place in my life" he asked me, "and not know that?"  It is funny what kids say at times when they feel safe.  I know that too many times I have just jumped in with content and not taken the time to build on a solid foundation with essential vocabulary.

My second point regarding vocabulary is that we have to teach it in context and when we are participating in "close reading" that  common core promotes, that is the perfect time. Many students aren't reading nearly as much as they should and therefore not adding to their vocabulary repertoires.  This isn't where we want to dumb things down but neither do we want to frustrate the kids by giving them text with too many words they don't know. The answer? Using rich and complex text, beautiful pieces of poetry and prose, and studying them with students. When we just study vocabulary in isolation, we are likely wasting kids time because there is no context or nuance to give it meaning. Excellent teachers ask students why the author chooses certain verbs and adjectives to convey ideas. Excellent math teachers ask students to find things that are parallel (or perpendicular, etc) in the world around them.

One of my favorite activities, if you have been on Pinterest you have seen it too, is an activity for teaching nuance. Words have shades and intensity as do colors. My friend Natalie, the interior designer, personifies paint colors: That color just hates being on that wall. That red is too harsh, that tan is too weak. Critical readers and writers do the same with words.  Said is too strong, she actually mutteredHappy is lying if he was just satisfied. Don't understate or overstate. The truth shall set you free.

Here are a couple of resources that I really like:

  • The dictionary (no kidding!)
  • A dictionary app that I use frequently from
  • Visual Thesaurus App
  • Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing by Constance Hale (I love this book. She feeds the reader carefully chosen verbs even as she writes about them. There are ideas for activities that are perfect to do with classes.)
  • Constance Hale has a website: 
  • Vocab Girl can be found on Facebook or
  • I read The Christian Science Monitor for the news but also because it has such literary value. I have used excerpts from article to expose my students to well written non-fiction text about current issues.
As Luther says in one of my all time favorite old movies, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, "If you work with words, words are your work."  I rest my case.


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