Words Matter

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. ’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” -Mark Twain

Words are the molecules of language. They are small, complicated building blocks that come together to form something so complex that it feels like magic that it even exists in the first place. Despite this central role–and the fact that nearly every test and essay rubric specifically mentions word choice–words themselves often go completely ignored in classroom instruction, written off as merely a “stylistic” choice.

In fact, words are so overlooked that I don’t think I’ve ever seen a specific lesson on word choice. Sometimes teachers will mention strong or poor word choice in individual feedback to student writing or gush about word choice in stories or poems read in class, but that is the extent to which I’ve seen direct teaching of choosing words.

My theory for why teachers so often forget to discuss the words themselves is that there are no specific rules for choosing words in the way that there are for things like commas or colons. But just because no specific rules are scrawled in style manuals, doesn’t mean that students can’t learn to wield words better. A few years ago I began to realize that if I was going to grade students on word choice in their essays, standardized tests were going to score students on word choice, and the world was going to judge students on their word choice, that I needed to find a way to teach word choice.

Jump forward to today, and as of 9:35am this morning I will be giving what has become one of my favorite lessons of the year: Words Matter. In it we spend an entire class period looking at mentor texts with strong word choice, parsing out “rules” for how to choose the right word, and then practicing our word choice. I’ve found this lesson, despite its lack of concrete rules, to have a very concrete impact on most student’s abilities to find words that are lightning, not lighting bugs.


Part I: The Set-up

The lesson starts with two simple questions that students fill out a quick Google Form. Here they are:

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The answers to these are hilarious. No clear consensus generally emerges for favorites, but the most despised is always “moist” followed by a who’s who of gross-out human body words like mucus, salvia, pus, secrete, etc.. By this point the kids are giggling and having fun as they share their beloved and despised words, and I then encourage them to try to explain why they love and don’t love these words. At this point the laughter always ends and is replaced with a sea of blank looks. Looks that tell me that they don’t have any idea where to even begin with such a question.

I have found this juxtaposition between how readily students can identify words they love and hate and how much they struggle to explain those feelings to be one of the most powerful motivators I know of for students to take words seriously. They realize that words do matter, but they are tricky, and thus require some close thinking. We then conclude this section by making some guidelines as a class for how to choose the right word that we put on a poster and display prominently in the room.

Part II: Mentor Texts and Suggestions

The next section of the lesson uses common tips and powerful examples to give the students concrete things to think about when they think of word choice. My goal in this section is to help students better understand the artistry and science behind good word choice and to see how powerful it is when done right. Here are those rules and examples, along with their accompanying activities:

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Pdf of Words Words Words

Part III: You All Do

I can take no credit for the third part of the lesson, which is an adapted version of a game that I got from a teacher years ago. The game is simple. The students have a sheet of mad-libs that they fill in according to prompts given by a slide on the board. For example, their mad-lib might be something like the following:

One day the elusive Loch Ness monster finally decided to _________ ashore. 

And in each round then have to fill in the blank with a verb to show the reader one of the following:

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The power of this lesson is that the whole time the group is thinking about choosing the right word, not just the first word that comes into their heads. Many students have never done this before, and for some it opens up a whole new world of how to approach language. Additionally, the game also allows them a safe and silly laboratory to process the lessons above.

Part IV: You Do It

In the final section of the lesson, the students take out a current or past paper and give it a read where they upgrade the word choice by rewriting lines and subbing out less than inspiring words for better ones. The exact specifics of this part depend on the writing we are doing at the moment, but I find that if I want the lessons to stick, I need to get students applying them in their own writing before they leave the room.


This might seem like an awful lot of trouble for words, but think about the amount of time we English teachers spend on something like commas. I’m not saying commas don’t matter; they absolutely do. But if a student had staggeringly beautiful word choice with some comma errors or impeccable comma usage with vanilla words, which would you think better and give a higher grade to? If like me, your answer is likely the former, then it might be time to show students that words matter by giving them the same time commitment you give to English class staples like commas, quote setups, and topic sentences!

Yours in teaching,

Matt

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