Category Archives: vocabulary building

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.

Should you write with a long word when a good short word is available?

Research shows you should choose the short word.

Nine years ago, a teacher at Stanford University had 71 students read several writing samples and then rank them. Some of the samples were “doctored” to replace simple nouns, verbs and adjectives with more complex words. The result: students rated the authors of the complex vocabulary samples as stupid.

happy pencilConcludes the author of the study, Daniel M. Oppenheimer, “Write as simply and plainly as possible and it’s more likely you’ll be thought of as intelligent.”

Stan Berry, coauthor of five books on writing, agrees. He says readers will stop reading when they are confused. To keep your writing clear, he advises using short, simple words.

Robert Frost, maybe the most renowned US poet, advised to use words of Anglo-Saxon origin for both simplicity and clarity. If you read his poems, you’ll rarely find long words or words of Latin origin. In “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” for example, Frost uses only one three-syllable word, “promises.” The rest are mostly one-syllable words, and all are every-day words a child could understand.

So how do you select a good word? Ask yourself:

  • Is the word’s meaning clear and specific? If so, use it. If not, keep searching.
  • Does that word fit with the other words you are using?  Does it sound like it belongs, like it is the most natural way to say what you want to say?   If it sounds wrong (too formal, too intellectual, or too childish), don’t use it. Choose another.
  • Does that word stand out? Sometimes that’s good, but sometimes a highfalutin word can sound awkward amid simpler words. Keep searching.
  • Lastly, if you’re not sure about a word, and you keep going back to it, replace it.

For young writers, create small lists of synonyms to replace overused words

When students are too young to use a thesaurus, they still should be encouraged to find synonyms for words they rely on all the time, such as “see,” “nice,” “thing,” “go” and “a lot.”

student thinking about what to writeOne way to do this is to collect synonyms for words children overuse, and make a booklet of them which children can refer to when they are writing. Such word lists are readily available on the internet. If you search for “words kids overuse in writing,” you’ll find many websites listing synonyms which you can download.

Recently I was working with a second grader whose first grade teacher had made an eight-page booklet of synonyms. My student was about to use “biggest” to describe an a pumpkin patch when I asked her to consider synonyms. She consulted her word bank and chose “massive” instead.

Unless words are used as parts of idioms, or are versions of the verb “to be,” they can usually be replaced with more specific words with little rewriting.

If you know students will be writing about an upcoming event, you can prepare a page of substitute words. For Halloween, the word “ghost” could be replaced with specter, spirit, demon, spook, phantom, shadow or apparition. At Thanksgiving, the word “turkey” could be replaced with poultry, fowl, rooster or bird. In the winter, “snow” could be replaced with flurries, blizzard, squall, crystals, flakes, powder and dust.

Replacing weak or overused vocabulary words with fresh, specific ones, especially verbs, is one of the best ways to improve writing.

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.

How should academic vocabulary be taught?

The new Common Core Standards call for students to learn “academic vocabulary.”

What many well-meaning teachers and parents do to “teach” this vocabulary is to ask students to look up in dictionaries or thesauruses the meanings of unknown words. This method of vocabulary instruction often fails because children don’t like to do it and so they pick the first meaning of a word, often the wrong meaning. If the children go online to look up the word, the result is even worse since online results list words but not nuances of meaning or usage.

So how can academic vocabulary be better taught and learned?

Cartoon of a waterskiier withe the caption, Aquatic:  relating to water

Aquatic: relating to water

One good way is to follow the advice of Robert Marzano, author of Building Academic Vocabulary (2004). He recommends

  • First, a teacher (or parent) explains the meaning of a new word to a child, giving an example that the child can remember. (I have found that the funnier the example, the easier it is for the child to relate the word to the example later on.)
  • Second, the child explains the new term in his or her own words. (If a word is difficult to pronounce, make sure the child says the word several times. I write the word phonetically, using syllable breaks, to help the child pronounce it.)
Cartoon of a man with footprints up his body and the words, Unassertive:  wimpy

Unassertive: wimpy

  • Next, the child makes a drawing of the word. (Stick figures are fine, but the meaning needs to be clear. Again, humor helps the child to attach the picture to the word.) A more dramatic child could act out the word. The idea is to explain the word not using words.
  • In the days after learning a new word, and from time to time thereafter, the child should encounter the word and the teacher or parent should ask what it means. If the child forgets, start the process again. If the parent makes a habit of using the word when talking to the child for a week or more, the child will better remember it.
Cartoon of a man with footprints up his body and the words, Unassertive:  wimpy

Mutilate: to cut in order to disfigure

  • From time to time, the teacher / parent and the student, or the student and her peers, should discuss vocabulary words. This could be every Monday, or twice a month, but regularly reviewing what a child has learned cements the ideas better each time they are reviewed.
  • Children should engage in fun games to help them remember vocabulary. (I use BINGO review games: a board labeled with 24 or 25 vocabulary words and a stack of definition cards. In a classroom setting, either I or a student student calls out a definition, and the children cover the correct word.)
Cartoon of a skull and crossbones with the words, Lethal:  deadly, toxic, fatal

Lethal: deadly, toxic, fatal

Adding one more idea to Marzano’s suggestions, I suggest that the word be used correctly in sentences. Many students I have taught can tell me the definition of a word, but when it comes to using the word correctly, they cannot do it. They use a noun for a verb; they don’t use the past tense or past participle of a verb; they leave off the “s” of plural words or of third person singular verbs; and when adding suffixes, they misspell. This usage work can be done orally so that it goes faster and so students don’t balk at it.