“Hate is a very strong word Amy, make a better choice. Try this —I strongly dislike that.” My grandmother often said this to me when I was young and I passed judgment on things that I did not like. Choosing to use the word hate, the word so many adolescents use carelessly, that was my preference at that young age. I know better now. I know now that my grandmother was teaching me something about carefully considering the impact of a word.
As I look back now, especially when I think about the context of teaching writing, I realize my grandmother was teaching me the importance of word choice. It is interesting how I still use this skill, so many years later. Almost each time I consider a word I can hear my grandmother’s voice.
Choice is a basic tenet in writing workshop, students choose their topics and students choose their words. Word choice is a skill we practice with students to improve the overall quality of writing. In the story of my grandmother, she was really teaching me about gradients in word meaning and the impact of words. Both are very important when communicating in speaking or writing.
In this age of everything being “awesome” and “great” both of which I am guilty of over using and using when perhaps something doesn’t really reach those levels, this is complicated. Students aren’t really hearing, using and understanding the gradients of words and their meanings. Precision in choosing words has the ability to raise the level of writing, yet it can be challenging to make these choices especially when students have not really spent time living in the meaning of words and their various connotations.
There are many ways to explore gradients of words with students, it could be depicted as a gradient as this image below.
To help students think about word choice, gradients like the one above can be helpful, this provides a visual in seeing how that word compares to other words in the gradient. Growing vocabulary knowledge results here because we are able to use known words as the “velcro” for students to attach the new words. Word walls, word thermometers, word sandwichs and paint chips are often used in classrooms to help students learn and choose words to use writing.
If you are looking for something new to try with your class that engages both the brain and the body you might like activity. I learned this from Erin Sloan while I was at the Institute in American History & Content Literacy: A Collaboration Between the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and The Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. Last summer I shared it with a group of teachers during professional development. This is a favorite of mine because it engages the mind, integrates gross motor movements and it creates smiles and laughter. All of which are contribute to learning that lasts.
1) Divide a group into two and line them up, facing each other.
2) Stand in the middle, at the front of the two rows, ask them to face each other. Tell the participants on your left that they are “partner a” and tell the participants on your right that they are”partner b”.
3) Walk over to each partner a and say a word to each partner a.
4) Partner a and b walk towards each other and partner a has to say the word hello with the tone and expression that the word would hold.
5) Partner b has to guess what the word is based on the way the person said hello and the manner in which they walked by.
6) Check to see if the word they said was correct, if so talk about why and if not, talk about the word meaning and how the word would sound.
6) Repeat steps 1-6 with partner b receiving and acting out the word