“Of a truth, Knowledge is power, but it is a power reined by scruple, having a conscience of what must be and what may be; whereas Ignorance is a blind giant who, let him but wax unbound, would make it a sport to seize the pillars that hold up the long-wrought fabric of human good, and turn all the places of joy as dark as a buried Babylon.” (George Eliot, English novelist, 1819-1880).
If we do not already have knowledge of Babylon, Eliot's meaning is not so clear. The Tower of Babel got its name from the ancient city of Babylon and the darkness Eliot speaks of may well be the darkness of confusion and chaos. If knowledge is power, and ignorance not so blissful, let's create classrooms that promote content knowledge along with word knowledge.
If handled properly, word knowledge grows as we actively explore art and science, math and music, history and technology. As David Pearson said in a prior post, "Read it! Write it! Talk it! Do it!" Let the content drive the vocabulary instruction and provide a good deal of context, distributed over time. Build knowledge. Knowledge supports cognition (Willingham, 2006). Knowledge is necessary to comprehension (Kintsch & Rawson, 2007). Embed word learning into knowledge-building activities across content. Word knowledge and content knowledge should eventually merge through intellectually interesting lessons framed around the words (logos) that support the 'study of' the particular science, be it biology, math, or linguistics. The words are the science, in some sense. For instance, how can we discuss the science of meteorology without using the words weather, thermal, pressure, humidity, etc? We can, I suppose, and silence may be a useful device at times, but people will talk, and for that, they need words.
The real question? How do we make word knowledge a major part of content instruction? We do so in varied ways, but we must be deliberate and explicit about it. For example, in art (an important subject area for six reasons, research brief here), when creating these snowpeople with paint and fabric, we might teach the names of the fabrics used in the project. Have the students say and read the word fabric and discuss its basic meaning. Then, have students say and read the various types of fabric: cotton, felt, burlap, silk, wool, velvet, etc. Say and read the texture words, touching the cloth: rough, scratchy, silky, smooth, wrinkly, etc. Describe the patterns: checkered, striped, plaid, etc. Using a model or outline, have students generate a sentence: “My cotton fabric is gold and black in a plaid pattern.” Compare one fabric to another. When the art project is complete, brainstorm potential names or titles for the finished work and discuss why one title is preferred over another. This promotes word consciousness.
In the process of teaching art we build knowledge, and with it, vocabulary. Did I mention how
Back to the fabric lesson, eventually students will need to make the morphological leap from fabric to fabricate and fabrication. Fabricate means "to make something out of pieces or parts" but it can also mean "to make something up, to concoct an untruth," more euphemistically called a story. The leap from fabric to fabricate ('to lie') is more obvious when we think of this as "to make up a story out of whole cloth." Also, eventually, students need to learn about other ways we use the word fabric, as in the fabric of society, the fabric of the universe, etc. How is fabric used in the quote by Eliot?
Fabric and fabricate are academic terms compared to the more common words cloth and make. In the art lesson described above, students develop artistic ability, acquire academic vocabulary, and gain knowledge of different types of fabrics. Time is in limited supply; our lessons need to accomplish several goals at once.
Kintsch, W., & Rawson, K. A. (2007). Comprehension. In M. J. Snowling & C. Hulme (Eds.), The science of reading: A handbook, 2nd edition, (pp. 209-226). Malden, MA: Blackwell publishing.
Willingham, D. T. (2006, Spring). How knowledge helps: It speeds and strengthens reading comprehension, learning—and thinking. American Educator, 30-37.