Teachers at Work

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A Daily Vocabulary Bonanza for Teachers

The New York Times is a vocabulary-learning bonanza for students at all levels, employing a larger number of what teachers would call "vocabulary words" than any other American publication. And inside The Times, every day, there's a bonanza within that bonanza, the succinct and telegraphic television listings page, whose capsule movie reviews employ more vocabulary — including words, terms and expressions — than any other page in the paper. And quite enjoyably, too.

Further down in this column you'll learn how teachers and their students can receive these TV listings every day, as part of a free classroom subscription to the Electronic Edition of The New York Times. For now, though, let's just consider the vocabulary riches of the Times TV listings.

Here are four complete capsule reviews from recent issues of The Times that illustrate the succinctness of their plot descriptions and critiques, and the richness of their vocabulary:

Thief (1981) James Caan, Tuesday Weld. Family-man safecracker. Engrossing drama.

Eddie (1996) Avid basketball fan becomes Knicks head coach. Savvy, good-humored Cinderella story.

Kelly's Heroes (1970) Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas. Gold-heist mission behind Nazi lines. Lively but riddled with clichés.

Fred Claus (2007) Vince Vaughn, Paul Giamatti. Santa's ne'er-do-well older brother. A cinematic lump of coal.

The gray-backgrounded capsule movie reviews appear all over the TV listings page, but we're going to work only with those found in the Premium Cable listings, which has the heaviest concentration of them. The sample listing we'll use is from Friday, February 12, 2010. Click this link and, if you're able, print out a copy as you read on.

Every capsule review begins with the movie's title and its original release date, followed by the names of one or two of its stars. Sometimes, that's all there is. Usually, though, a concise plot description follows, then a pithy critique, perhaps just a single word like the one for "12 Rounds," at 9 p.m. on HBO. The compressed language is always lively and vigorous, and often humorous, sarcastic or wry, written to provide maximum meaning with the fewest words.

As you can see from the February 12 sample, the listings are a mine not only of conventional vocabulary but of expressions, colloquialisms, slang, allusions and cinematic and literary terms. Through them also, students will learn the names of film directors, actors and classic films, as well as concepts of film appreciation and criticism that, especially through discussion in class, can help make them more sophisticated filmgoers.

To give you an idea of how vocabulary rich the capsule reviews are, here are the words from just the Premium Cable capsule reviews on the four school days leading up to our Friday, February 12 sample.

autistic high-tech plodding
bedevil hokey portrait
bleak hokum possessiveness
candid impact renegade
chauvinist incendiary righteous
comeback industrialist sad sack
corny infantile sketchy
crossroad lark slow-witted
cult lunkheaded sly
elegy lured solemnity
evolution masterly squabbling
eye-catching menace stalk
famine opulent terrorize
flair over-the-top unabashed
haute couture perky vigilante

Fun Vocabulary Activities with Capsule Movie Reviews

As rich with vocabulary as the Times capsule reviews are, their use in the classroom will have slight educational value without activities and assignments to accompany them. And for such a novel and offbeat resource for language enrichment, we need novel and offbeat activities.

For the activities, students will need the Times Premium Cable movie listings for one night, shown on a screen or whiteboard, on students' individual computers, in the printed newspaper itself, or on copies of the listings you bring to class; a dictionary; and a notebook. For your students' first encounter with the capsule reviews, use the Premium Cable listings from February 12, if you'd like to have the ready-made Movie Hunt activity below to accompany it.

No pre-class preparation on your part is required to engage your class with the capsule reviews, although you may wish to scan the day's TV page in advance of a lesson for words you want to focus on. If you don't do an advanced scan, though, you or your students will always find suitable words in a matter of seconds, and after you've worked a few times with the activities below, your teaching skills will take over and you will handle the activities with ease.

With so much to choose from on any day, you can select words or expressions that you think your students should know or that would be interesting or fun for them to talk about in class. "Pampered" (10 p.m./HBO2) could suggest a class discussion about pampered children or teenagers. Or husbands or wives. Or pets. Or cars. "Eccentric" (8 p.m./FLIX) family members, neighbors and movie stars are familiar figures to most students. And the suffix of "archeology" (8 p.m./ STARZ) can lead to a chalkboard or notebook list of other "-ology" words.

As you can see, a single day's movie capsules on Premium Cable alone can provide students on all levels with anything from a daily snack to a weekly feast. You can spend a few minutes a day on them — perhaps at the beginning of the period as a sort of settling-in (an overture, if you will) — or a longer time once a week. Or, if your class receives a print Times, you can have them turn to it whenever a few minutes remain between the end of the lesson and the bell. (There are many more capsule reviews on the TV page besides those under Premium Cable; on February 12 there were more than 30.)

Activity I: Movie Hunt

The TV page's movie summaries are the raw material for a vocabulary game requiring word knowledge, reading comprehension skills, teamwork, dictionary skills and a sense of humor. Dictionaries are optional but helpful. The object is for individual students or teams to be the first to locate a movie listing from clues the teacher has given them. The teacher asks the question orally, skipping around among the listings from item to item. More than one question can be asked about the same movie. Teams may be allowed to confer before answering, and correct answers receive a point. An alternate format is to designate a team to answer a question within a time limit, at the end of which, if they don't know the answer, another team may give it. Appoint a timekeeper. The level of the class determines the sophistication of the questions. Those below range in suitability from fourth grade to high school seniors. Your basic instruction to them: "All the grayed-in boxes are movie reviews. I'll give you a vocabulary clue, you find the movie."

Let the fun begin!

  1. Find the word for a woman who is engaged to be married. (9 p.m./HBO)
  2. The humor in this movie is inadvertent, says the review. (8:30 p.m./MAX)
  3. Quite sanguinary, the review says of this movie. (8:30 p.m./SHO)
  4. Judging from its title, this movie could be about a fetus. (8:30 p.m./MAX)
  5. This movie title describes a toady or sycophant. (8 p.m./HBO2)
    [As with numbers 2 and 3, above,  when  a capsule review word is familiar to students, have them search for the word by giving them an unfamiliar synonym for it.]
  6. This film, says the reviewer, wants to please rather than say anything meaningful. (10 p.m. MAX)
  7. This movie's title carries the name of a dictator, known in his country as Il Duce. (8 p.m./FLIX)
    [The second part of the question is unnecessary, but acquaints students with Mussolini's nickname.]
  8. A word in this review describes someone who has little faith in people. (9:30 p.m./ENC)
  9. Find the movie whose title is the name of one of the world's biggest islands. (7 p.m./HBO)
    [Many opportunities for learning geography, history and science words in these reviews.]
  10. What phrase is a synonym for a bullseye? (10 p.m./HBO2)
  11. Find a person's name that, in its literal sense, means "cowardly. (7 p.m./FLIX)
  12. The reviewer says a rabbit wrote the script for this movie. (7 p.m./MAX)
  13. Could be a budding  priest, could be a future rabbi. (7 p.m./TMC)
  14. The review says this worthless movie makes fun of worthless movies. (7 p.m./SHO)
  15. This sequel is as silly (or "vacuous" or "fatuous") as its predecessor, the reviewer says. (8 p.m./STARZ) 
  16. Where's the horse (or equine) that's related to a pinto? (7 p.m./HBO2)
  17. Paleontologists are this movie's protagonists. (11 p.m./STARZ)
  18. This movie, the review says, is flavorless. (10 p.m./MAX)
  19. In this part of the world you'll find Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. (10 p.m./FLIX)
  20. What's the movie featuring a canine? (10 p.m./MAX)

Activity II: Reinforcing Word Meanings Through Informal Discussion

  1. Do you know anyone who has, or has had, a fiancée? (9 p.m./HBO)
  2. Do you know any celebrities who are notorious for being outrageous? (11:30 p.m./HBO)
  3. What helpful counsel have you received from a teacher?  (8 p.m./TMC)
  4. Do you know anyone who beat the odds against them?  (11 p.m./ENC)
  5. Can you describe a picturesque place you've visited, or one you'd like to visit?  (8 p.m./FLIX)
  6. Tell us about someone you know whose life reached a crossroad, and which road he or she decided to take. (7 p.m./TMC)
  7. What items that used to be bought for longtime use and reuse are now disposable? (7 p.m./SHO)
  8. Do you know anyone who leads a hectic life, at least some of the time?  (7 p.m./MAX)
  9. Do you know anyone who's had a harebrained idea?  (7 p.m./MAX)

Activity III: Agreeing or Disagreeing with the Times Review

Chances are, most high school students will have seen one or two movies reviewed on any day's TV listings page. Have them select one review and write a paragraph agreeing or disagreeing with it.

Activity IV: To Watch or Not to Watch

Have students select five movies whose capsule reviews would discourage them from seeing them, and five whose reviews are enticing. Then, have them choose one in each category and explain to the class the reason for their choices.

Activity V: Teamwork

Break the class into teams and allow them five or ten minutes to create several questions based on the capsule reviews on one page of the Times TV listings, as you did in Activity II: The Movie Hunt. The teams take turns asking the questions.

Activity VI: My Turn

Have students write a television page capsule review of a movie they have seen and have a strong negative or positive opinion of, explaining the plot as succinctly as possible and giving their opinion in no more than six words. Their mission is to dissuade readers from seeing the movie or to encourage them.

Your Turn

You are invited to submit a maximum of three Times-style capsule movie reviews. They should include the movie's title and year of release, one or two lead performers in the film, and your comment of no more than six words, not necessarily in a single sentence.

Click here to learn how you can receive a free classroom subscription to The New York Times Electronic Edition, for use in K-12, GED, ESOL and adult literacy classrooms anywhere in the United States, or the print edition at a greatly reduced price.


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Bob Greenman is the author of Words That Make a Difference; and, with his wife, Carol, More Words That Make a Difference, vocabulary enrichment books based on words and passages from The New York Times and The Atlantic Monthly. Bob taught English and journalism at James Madison and Edward R. Murrow High Schools, and at Kingsborough Community College, all in Brooklyn, N.Y. He is a newspaper in education consultant for The New York Times, and his website has a section devoted to journalism education. Click here to read more articles by Bob Greenman.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday March 4th 2010, 11:03 AM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Bob Greenman finds golden teaching nuggets in the most unlikely places!!
Thursday March 11th 2010, 8:41 AM
Comment by: Lars M. (Sigtuna Sweden)
"Seminarian falls in love with woman." There's a whole lesson on conversational implicature in that sentence.
Thursday May 27th 2010, 2:33 PM
Comment by: Scribe
Wow! Until today, I hadn't encountered the term 'conversational implicature' since leaving the philosophy graduate program at UC/Berkeley during the 1970s. At the time, Paul Grice, who devoted a major portion of his life to developing the concept of implicature, was still teaching at Berkeley. Years would pass before I could fully appreciate my good fortune in having been able to sit in on Grice's seminars in philosophy of language.

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