Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Playing with Words: The Fun Way to Expand Your Vocabulary

This school year has roared out of the blocks like Usain Bolt running the 100 meter sprint in Beijing. And like Mr. Bolt, every member of the school community is learning that their capacity to go faster and accomplish more is yet to be discovered. But even with numerous multi-tasking and time-management challenges, I've had a few moments to pause and enjoy the enthusiastic and intelligent learning connections teachers at my school are bringing to their students.

Early one morning, while Blue Bird coaches were still delivering our clients to school, one of our young teachers, Sarah Newell, stopped me in the office to rave about one of her summer reading favorites, The Mother Tongue, by Bill Bryson. Sarah was struck by Bryson's ability to deepen her knowledge of the English language and simultaneously inspire learning activities that will do the same for her students. She referred me to a passage in Bryson's book where he discusses how a word's meaning changes over time. For example, Bryson notes the word nice first came into use in the late 1200s. Its original meaning was stupid or foolish, but over the centuries, nice has meant lascivious and wanton, elegant, slothful, precise, and finally, since about 1769, pleasant and agreeable.

Sarah and I began to form sentences in which nice took on the various meanings listed in Bryson's book. Mainly through changing our vocal inflection and altering our facial expressions, we were able to capture each meaning. We were having a blast with this game, and when we finally parted company, I advised Sarah to, "have a nice day." We both laughed as we realized that nice would never again be the same for either of us.

Together, Sarah and I had been learning more about words by playing with their meanings. Bringing this kind of playful learning into our classrooms allows students to explore word meaning in ways which make learning more permanent. Wordplay is a productive learning tool for students, and it can take many forms.

Bring wordplay into your classroom through technology. Creating a blog or wiki creates a platform to launch discussions about words. For instance, social studies teachers are using blogs and wikis to help students understand election year language. Some of the political terminology being tosses around during this political season can truly baffle students. Technology provides teachers with opportunities to create relevant forums that guide student inquiry as they expand and deepen their word knowledge. Teachers can set up a blog or wiki as a place where students share words and phrases they've heard used by political commentators and candidates. By using free web tools, like Blogger, teachers can create safe online environments to guide virtual discussions about all areas of their content, even word study.

There are other Internet based tools available to bring language to life. For example, TeacherTube is a great resource for finding videos that demonstrate wordplay and fun approaches to studying word parts. The Word Detective, an excellent web site for tracking the origins of language, currently has a very illuminating explanation of the term vetting, as in "vetting a candidate." The amazing link between a word now used to describe the process for researching a candidate's readiness for office and its original meaning related to sending an animal doctor to the track to discern the health of a race horse, will certainly help many students become fascinated with the life of words. This Word Detective article could also become part of a focus lesson on creating and using analogies. Imagine having students in an American Government class create analogies using the relationships between a political race and a horse race. This activity would not only deepen their understanding of the American political system, but it would also increase their skill at using the specialized vocabulary of politics.

Spending a little time scanning the Internet for great word game resources just might lead you back to the Visual Thesaurus. Word Routes, including its regular "Mailbag Friday" feature, continues to be a source of fun with words. In a recent Word Routes column, the term bail out is given an historic perspective. When used in an economics class, this concise and breezily written article gives a context to what is happening with our current economic distress and helps students broaden their knowledge of content and content specific word knowledge. Mailbag Friday approaches words from a lighthearted perspective. The origin and uses of one of my favorite words, dude, was recently discussed in the column. This article was short, well-written, and guaranteed to hold the interest of any teenager. This is an example of an outside-the-textbook gem that provides teachers with the resources to make word study more like play than work.

But isn't wordplay supposed to be about games? Game-playing with words is definitely a part of wordplay. I admit that I love words so dearly, anything I do to learn more of them and use them correctly seems like play. Many teachers use games to help students play with developing a larger vocabulary. Teacher-made games based on popular word games like Scrabble, Boggle, and Jeopardy are plentiful in our classrooms. Inventive teachers are constantly creating new ways to help students expand their word knowledge. Wordplay can include the use of acronyms where students use excellent vocabulary to describe a concept they are learning. Wordplay features the exploration of alliteration, oxymoron, and other literary devices to make writing more descriptive. Wordplay involves content teachers connecting meaning through analogies and metaphors. Wordplay is everywhere.

Finally, the goal of wordplay is to help our students develop a real interest in and love for the language. Our students live in a new world; a world where language is in constant flux. A teacher's role in this fast paced learning environment, where each day word meanings are coalesced and melded into new meanings, is to act as the guide, leading the way. Educators must get out in front of these rapidly moving trends in language and help students understand that the bridge between these new trends and traditional language can handle two-way traffic. And like Usain Bolt, with our arms joyfully outstretched, cruising across the finish line ahead of the pack, we need to lead our students to greater word knowledge and therefore, to a greater understanding of the world they will soon lead.


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Debbie Shults is a veteran Sarasota, Florida, teacher, literacy coach and now blogger who is working to define a "new literacy" at her middle school. Click here to read more articles by Debbie Shults.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday October 8th 2008, 8:49 AM
Comment by: Kenneth K.
Debbie is so, so correct!! This is an article to read, reread, study, and learn from. Now I've got to move even faster and check out those websites. Wiki? Blog? Thanks!!!
Wednesday October 8th 2008, 12:04 PM
Comment by: Judy M. (Irvine, CA)
What a beautiful paper! As a professor, my students are always waiting for any interesting word I "drop" into the lecture. Now I have several new ones!! My professional focus has been on how to increase vocabulary development in adolescents with learning challenges-- good vocabulary development pedagogy is not merely repetition; the word stories make a big impression. Thanks for a few more good stories imbedded in this fine piece. It is a "new literacy" Debbie.
Thursday October 9th 2008, 9:52 PM
Comment by: Lucia V. (San Cristobal Venezuela)
this is a beautiful content! I am going to look over these
websides, Wiki?Blog?. Thank you all very much!!
Saturday October 11th 2008, 6:44 PM
Comment by: James D. (Edmond, OK)
The illustration with 'nice' is 'nice.' In what sense 'nice'? Well, the diachronic analysis, while interesting and perhaps funny, is, in the end, not as helpful in determining meaning as a synchronic approach. A further question arises: How did social and cultural norms affect the senses of words like 'nice'?

I'm just a curious linguist. :-)
Saturday November 8th 2008, 9:23 AM
Comment by: Daniela (Roldan Argentina)
Thanks!!! This is an incredible article !! A must for all teachers trying to guide students through the intricacies of the English language, especially when it is not their mother tongue.

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Debbie's advice for breaking free of traditional vocabulary instruction.
Shannon Reed rounds up great online tools for vocab-building.
All about the niceties of the word "nice."