Sunday, November 28, 2010

Treated to Language (with video)

If language is valued by the teacher, students know it. They sense that the teacher is unusually aware of words -- otherwise overlooked, as water streaming continuously away. Their teacher treats language like a fabulous dessert, greeting especially scrumptious expressions with delight.  It is possible for educators to ignite an interest in words and phrases that is almost tangible.

This type of teaching behavior is situated within the four-ply framework for  effective vocabulary programs, proposed by Michael Graves (2006). Creating a love for language falls under the first component: Providing rich and varied language experiences. It also falls under the fourth component: Developing word consciousness. (See description of the four components.) Helping children and adolescents learn to treasure words does not replace explicit vocabulary instruction, but it is thought to enhance such instruction. Explicit vocabulary instruction is the second instructional component in the framework proposed by Graves.

How can teachers create a love for language, especially for words and phrases? First, take a sincere interest in the words a student uses. For example, one might tell a student, "I'm so glad to hear someone say kaboodle. That word always makes me smile!" This is gratifying -- having someone pay attention to our own words. It is also motivating to realize that our words have the power to make someone smile--to feel, to think, perhaps even to take action. This type of word-power is conveyed in Donavan's Word Jar.

“Also, make a note of the word gobbledygook. I like it. I want to use it more often in conversation” (General Melchett, in the BBC comedy Black Adder).
Another way to convey the power and presence of words is through poetry, as done with deliberation and enthusiasm in an urban school in Florida, briefly described by Niles (2004). Poetry can also provide a way to showcase the playful value of words. (See prior post for resources for teaching poetry.)

Teachers also promote language through song. In one study, Hines (2010) successfully used lyrics as one tool to teach word decoding and word meaning to adolescents with learning disabilities. In similar manner, when I was a middle school teacher, I invited a different pair of students to discuss their selected song lyrics, every other Friday, for about 15 minutes. After ensuring the lyrics were not offensive, I facilitated as needed, encouraging the pair to lead the class in a discussion, explaining why the lyrics were important to them, and which words were most meaningful. The lyrics were printed in advance. The audio track was played.

Some teachers instill a love for language through storytelling and theater, including reader's theater. For instance,  Keehn, Harmon, and Shoho (2008) found that, compared to traditional (mainly definitional) means of teaching vocabulary to eighth graders, a brief theatrical enactment resulted in significantly greater word learning.

Teachers and librarians share a love for words when they read aloud from news clippings, short stories, excerpts and entire books, both fiction and nonfiction, and when they encourage learners to participate in extended discussions. When peer conversations are prompted that focus on a specific segment of text, word-learning is likely to occur, and this is true for native speakers as well as ELLs.

In a language-friendly learning atmosphere, students and teachers do not use words or rules to shame or to punish. Classroom norms can help ensure that words are used responsibly. Denning, Kessler, and Leben (2007, p. 182) stated:
Ultimately, an enhanced and enlarged vocabulary, like any part of the complex phenomenon called language, is a multipurpose tool. Like a hammer, it can be used either to build or to injure. The individual is responsible for the use to which it is put. 
These ideas are neatly captured by Stephen Fry, English author, journalist, and comedian, who holds assorted honorary titles from the University of Dundee, Cambridge University, Anglia Ruskins, etc.  Fry speaks with humor and insight on the splendor of language, arguing against pomposity and pedantry pertaining to rules and words. To hear his entire discussion, titled Language, visit Steven Fry's Podgrams at iTunes (Series 2, Episode 3). Also, visit his blog: The New Adventures of Mr. Steven Fry. This brief film was created by Matthew Rogers; he set a portion of Fry's lecture to words, cleverly creating a kinetic typography.


Stephen Fry Kinetic Typography - Language from Matthew Rogers on Vimeo.


Denning, K., Kessler, B., & Leben, W. (2007). English Vocabulary Elements, second edition. Oxford University Press. 

Graves, M.F. (2006). The vocabulary book: Learning and instruction. New York: Teachers College Press. 

Hines, S. (2010). Name that word: Using song lyrics to improve the decoding skills of adolescents with learning disabilities. Teaching Exceptional Children, 43(1), 16-21. 

Keehn, S. Harmon, J., & Shoho, A. (2008). A study of readers theater in eighth grade: Issues of fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 24(4), 335-362. 

Nile, S. (2004, April). A celebration of words. Teaching Pre K-8, 4(7), 56-57.


    1. This post should be required reading for every teacher. Amazing video! Thank you, Susan. I am going to pick up a copy of Donovan's Word Jar.

      Tony Block

    2. Anonymous11/30/2010

      Pleased to see that the more creative teaching devices are not abandoned in the explicit instruction movement. Thanks for putting it all in perspective!

    3. The video is a treat! Hear Hear! Thanks again, Susan.

    4. Hi Tony, Marcia and Anonymous,

      I am glad you enjoyed the post and the video. Tony, let me know what you think of the book!


    5. Peter Bowers said...
      Love the Stephen Fry video Susan!

      Anonymous makes an important point about explicit instruction and creativity. I would argue that, in fact, explicit instruction about the structures of words provides the richest foundation for generative, creative instruction about the spelling, meaning and reading of words.

      Susan's post and Anonymous' comment made me think of a brilliant set of videos that a couple of teachers at the American School of Doha put together recently. They started a faux TV show called "Scientifically Speaking" to support teachers' and students' use of word structure knowledge to deepen understanding of science terminology and concepts. You can see an intro to these hilarious, but informative videos at this link:

      I hope someone takes up my challenge to post a response video doing a scientific investigation of the word "scientifically"!

      Readers who enjoy these videos may enjoy the WordWorks Newsletter at this introduced those videos and a Grade 1 "Morphological Musical". Find that Newsletter at this link

      Thanks to Susan for creating this forum for such thought provoking discussion on vocabulary instruction!


    6. Peter, the two Scientifically Speaking videos you mentioned are truly fabulous. Highly professional, correct in terms of content, humorous, and brief. They are both highly engaging and yet highly explicit. Well done, Katrina and Nick! Thank you for sharing their fine work, Peter!

      In addition, I have always enjoyed your WordWorks newsletters. Never have I returned from them empty minded!



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