Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Sticks and stones may break my bones...

Words are very powerful weapons. They hurt. They soothe. They ignite fire. They calm raging waters. They can raise you up and back-fire on you. Words are loaded with meaning, embedded in riddles, and can have different meanings depending on the accent given.

Fire! Fire? FIRE!!

Two separate studies reviewed the vocabulary of Webster’s Third International Dictionary (1963) and found that when compound words, archaic words, abbreviations, proper names, alternative spellings, and dialect forms were excluded and the remaining words could be classified into 54,000 word families!! Our students are bombarded with new words on a daily basis, but we also expect them to choose their words wisely. How can students master this many words? What about English language learners?

We need words and we teach words. But do we teach students to love them? To treat words with respect? To recognize the power that words have when they learn them?

I spent three years in law school, and almost the same amount of time in practice, learning how to use words to my best advantage. I think they did a pretty good job; when backed into a corner, I can use them to back my verbal opponent into the opposite one. I can see the weakness in their arguments, craft mine in my head to counter it, and spititoutsofastthattheydon’thavetimetothinkyetalonerespond. I win!! But interestingly, when a friend is grieving over the loss of a family member or the dissolution of a seemingly rock-solid marriage, I falter. Words escape me and the only thing I can stammer out is “I’m sorry, I am so sorry.”

Words have come to the forefront lately as we seem to trip over them in education. We need to be careful with what we say so as not to offend or hurt so we couch their meaning in other words which don’t really mean the same thing and not everyone has access to the code so they think we mean something entirely different we talk about what is important to us. Huh? In other words, why have we stopped saying what we mean?

I am obsessing over words because I have spent the past two days working with very dedicated educators to review ELA testing items for our state assessments. In the course of our discussions we have been dissecting words: what grade level they are appropriate for, whether our students would know them, how to teach them. But we don’t talk about how to teach students to love them. Truth be told – the process is starting to kill my deep affection for them! But it has made me wonder about how to empower students with the nuances of our complicated, illogical, often misused language.


1 comment:

Theresa G said...

I feel a bit like I am talking to myself on this blog lately (good thing I think I'm pretty interesting!!) but I ran across this line from Ralph Fletcher lately and it has really stuck in my head:
"We must speak to our students with an honesty tempered by compassion: Our words will literally define the ways they perceive themselves as writers."
Makes me think about the dreaded "awk" that I often received on my papers in high school. Defined as awkward, Mrs. B never really did explain (1)what was awkward about it or (2) how to fix it. So after awhile - I expected, I saw it, I ignored it!!
So much for that word!