Category Archives: ESL

Is “said” a bad word?

A middle grades teacher in California is insisting her students no longer use “said,” and instead use words like “uttered,” “expressed,” “recited,” and “spewed,” according to a recent Wall Street Journal article.

girl writing and thinkingThat teacher, Leilen Shelton, has also written a book, Banishing Boring Words, purchased, presumably, by people who don’t write for a living.

Shelton’s idea, that overused, general words should be replaced by specific, less used words, is a good one some of the time. But she takes it too far.

“Said,” for example is a word as inconspicuous as “a” or “the” which makes “said” the perfect word to use when someone speaks. Almost any other word focuses on how the person speaks, not on what the person says. And what is usually more important—the message or the way the message is delivered?

Shelton’s goal, to force kids to search for descriptive, specific vocabulary, is good. But sometimes the perfect word is a plain old English word.

For example, if a student is writing dialog, the dialog should sound like real people talking. Real people use words like “make,” “take,” “get,” and “go,” not “construct,” “procure,” “possess” and “perambulate.”

The context in which a word is used must be considered by a writer. So must be the audience. Simpler vocabulary words are easier to understand and attract a wider audience.

With my own students, I insist they locate the verbs in their writing and consider if they should be changed. But the replacement words I suggest are words that children know and have heard their parents or friends use. If a student writes, “We got there,” I ask him to consider “we arrived,” but not “we achieved our destination.”

With vocabulary selection, the biggest problem I see  is usage, especially among ESL students. A student clicks online for a synonym and chooses any word, the longer the better. But not all synonyms are perfect fits, and sometimes the word a student chooses sounds ridiculous.  I recommend students use a dictionary which explains usage and subtle differences in meaning, like the American Heritage Dictionary.

The times must also be considered. Words that Jefferson and Lincoln considered everyday words or at least well know words are not well known today. Students may not be aware that a word is old-fashioned or archaic and use it just because it is on a list.

Ms. Shelton’s goal is good, but her approach lacks common sense.

Creating paragraphs using a list of vocabulary words

Sometimes teachers assign students to create a paragraph or two using vocabulary words they are learning in class. This can be a worthwhile writing assignment. Here’s why.

  • Many times students know the meaning(s) of a word, but they cannot use the word properly in sentences. ESL students, especially, need work in usage. They might not know the part of speech a word is, or the past participle of a word if it is a verb, or  if a word needs to be followed by a preposition and if so which preposition.  Students need practice using words and getting feed back on how the words  are used.Student writing and thinking
  • ESL students (as well as some native English speakers) also need work in coherence, this is, putting words in the proper order to make sense. They need to know if the word they are using is a noun which might be used as a subject and go early in the sentence, or if it is an adverb which might go just about anywhere. They might not consciously think, “Is exploit a noun?” but they need to listen in their minds to hear if it sounds right where they are placing it. This takes practice.
  • Almost all students need practice spelling new vocabulary words. Spelling as a separate subject is not taught once students reach middle grades, yet students still need to repeat spelling words in order to make the spelling stick. They get that practice when they write the vocabulary words in sentences.
  • Creating a group of related sentences using particular words takes thought. Students use higher level thinking skills when they apply a word to a situation. They might consider using a word in a particular sentence and then discard the sentence because they realize it doesn’t fit the meaning of the paragraph.

Here is an example of an ESL fifth grader’s use of vocabulary words in a situation based on a life experience.  Her vocabulary words are underlined.

Hannah, 12, and her younger brother, Harry, 9, arrived here two days ago when my idle summer of ease ended. Eric is an immense problem to everyone except Steven (my kin). He flails his arms when he can’t play Wii, making us uneasy. Our guest is addicted to technology such as the Wii, computer and T.V. Affecting us with his boisterous personality, he makes it hard for me to be tolerant.

Hannah, his sister and a former friend of mine from Taiwan, does not provoke me; instead her delightful personality captivates my time. Because she deserves a major break, I am gratified that she has come to visit us. I feel partially happy that they flew here.

To worry about the disaster that her brother will make is senseless; instead I will focus on having a sensational time with Hannah.

Here is a similar assignment by the same student when she was a ninth grader.

The fear of not meeting my own expectations intensified until I felt paralyzed. I had an aversion to enroll in complicated classes in dread of failing. I loathed doing anything with my sister because she always managed to do it better than I did, whether it be tennis, ice skating, swimming, or academic classes. She sprinted like Usain Bolt. On our high school swim team, she kicked like Michael Phelps, double lapping me. Would I ever achieve what my sister had? The question plagued me. The burdensome feeling of fear weighed on my shoulders like the world pressing on Atlas’s shoulders.