As an educator, I am always trying to convey the importance of word choice in students’ writing. Finding and using appropriate terms and phrases is critical—not only because it is almost always a significant component on an essay rubric, but because word choice in writing is a reflection of one’s ability to communicate precisely and effectively. Furthermore, a student with a knack for appropriate word choice in his writing is typically known to have a higher rate of expressive vocabulary. Regardless of a student’s future college major or career preference down the road, the more comfortable a student is with his ability to communicate, the more confident he will be when navigating the professional world.
Since there are such direct links between vocabulary and intellect, it strikes me as odd that there isn’t more of an emphasis on acquiring vocab skills in the primary, grade-level English classes these days. Of course, students will often be confronted with bolded or underlined terms in a class reading, accompanied by a brief definition in the footnotes, but this level of vocabulary exposure is hardly effective. Vocabulary taught in a vacuum, relating only to the current text in front of them, does nothing to provide students with a robust repertoire of word usage. Instead, these vaguely “brushed over” terms are taught briefly in isolation and then cast aside, rarely to be revisited.
There are strategies, not just for English classrooms, but for all subject areas, that can help students build vocabulary without the typical rote memorization that comes to mind from past decades.
Bring back the word wall
In elementary classrooms, we used to see brightly colored vocabulary words taped to the front wall, encouraging students to use these terms in conversation. This same level of visibility goes a long way in the secondary classrooms as well. The key for success is to present students with these terms and then connect them cross-curricularly. If foreshadowing is on the English classroom word wall, the teacher should make a point to relate this term to other, perhaps more familiar terms, like forecasting or hypothesizing in science, or indicate, imply, or symbolize in math or world history. The intent is to build connections to as many familiar terms as possible so that students better understand how this new word could be used to more precisely convey what they mean.
In addition to the word wall display, teachers should also instruct students to capture the new terms on paper, along with the related terms that they already know. Essentially, they are constructing a word web to illustrate subtle differences in terminology and how certain scenarios would utilize foreshadowing, while a similar scenario would be better suited by saying “hypothesizing.”
Color coding these word webs and word walls in the classroom can help students begin to categorize terminology as well. Perhaps science-related terms could be highlighted in green, while history/civics-related terms could be displayed in orange. Below is an example of how one word could translate through multiple contents: English class: adaptation; science class: evolution; math class: modification; history class: transformation.
Each of these terms is related to some sort of change from the original. An adaptation in English class means to take a classic work and rewrite it through a different lens. As students see the relationship between these terms, they are better able to distinguish the subtle differences and how each term would be more suitable to a certain scenario.