Teachers at Work
A column about teaching
Teaching Words in Context
When Bob Greenman taught high school journalism and English in Brooklyn, NY, public schools he found himself turning to the New York Times for more than just the news. "I had the kids work on vocabulary from the paper," the 30-year veteran educator explains. "It's peerless for vocabulary acquisition, even better than reading classic fiction." That experience inspired Bob to put together a book called Words That Make a Difference, a compendium of vocabulary words with contextual examples from the New York Times, and another one he co-authored with his wife Carol, this time with examples from the Atlantic Monthly magazine. We spoke to Bob about his practical approach to teaching vocabulary.
VT: What's the benefit of looking at words in context?
Bob: It's like the difference between seeing an animal in a glass case in a museum and seeing it in the wild. It brings the word to life, it gives it a sense of place, and it makes you see that the word has a use. Studying vocabulary lists -- which I did not do with my students -- is a rote operation. Students may learn the words for a quiz, but then they forget about them. Even having students use the words in a sample sentence, which is a common assignment, is largely ineffective because they use the words incorrectly or awkwardly much of the time.
But reading a paper like the Times reinforces words continuously. You'll see a word on the front page, then the next day you'll see the same word in a Letter to the Editor or the sports page. The Times and other top publications use these words over and over.
VT: What's your approach to teaching students vocabulary?
Bob: I don't recommend working from a list of words. Teachers may feel desperate to use them because most students have deficient vocabularies, even in high school -- and you want to give them as much as possible. But I've found that if students read articles from a good newspaper like the New York Times, they will develop their vocabulary much more effectively. I advise teachers to have students read a newspaper article, or even part of an article, in class every day -- it doesn't matter what the article is, as long as the students are interested in it -- and, after they've read the article, talk about it with them and about some of the unfamiliar words in it and have them jot down a few in their notebook. You don't have to give tests all the time, either. Just by osmosis, by constantly using words, they become familiar with them.
Not too long ago I gave a talk to a group of English teachers in New York about using this approach and I referred to the newspaper as "non-fiction reading." A teacher said, "You know, I never thought of the newspapers being 'non-fiction.'" But they are. They're a nonfiction source that's not pushed very much. It may seem potentially difficult to teach from newspapers because they change every day. It's not "curriculum material" in the minds of most teachers the way most books are.
But this approach is doable. Another thing I advise teachers to do is to personalize words; that is, take a word like "surreptitious" and talk about something you did once that was surreptitious. Then ask volunteers to talk about surreptitious things they have done. After something like this, kids remember the word, even if they don't use it for awhile. Only when you read a word several times and start using it yourself does it becomes your own word. I can't imagine that the people we consider great writers learned vocabulary by studying lists of words.
VT: As you said, you have to bring words to life.
Bob: Speaking to a group of senior citizens recently, I produced little swizzle sticks from my pocket. You know, the little wooden sticks that you use to stir coffee. I told them that I took them from a Starbucks, and asked, "Were they stolen?" And they answered, "No, that's not stealing." And I said, "Well, what is it?" And someone replied, "Well, I don't know, you just lifted them." I then spoke about people who work in offices and bring home office supplies for themselves, and included the word "filch" and "pilfered." Pretty soon everybody started telling the class about something that they once pilfered or filched!
VT: They started to remember.
Bob: Right. In my classes, for the word "ostensibly" I'd say, "Did you ever tell your mother you were going to a store, and ostensibly, that's where you were going, but you weren't really going out for that reason?" When you personalize a word in that way, students' responses could take up the rest of the period. I also bring in a book titled "How To Avoid Procrastination," hold it up and tell the class "I'm a terrible procrastinator and so I bought this book. In fact I bought it 10 years ago." And I wait for it to dawn on them that the next thing I'm going to say is, I haven't read it yet.
VT: You have a whole grab bag of vocab teaching tricks!
Bob: Absolutely. I like to drop an Alka-Seltzer into a glass of water and talk about the word, "effervescence," and ask students to tell the class about someone they know who has that kind of personality. In fact, when I talked about this word in the senior citizens' class, and asked, "Does anybody know somebody with an effervescent personality?" they pointed to a man in the class who had been very lively and participating in the discussion. There are so many ways to do it.
VT: Sounds like you're having fun with words, and students respond.
Bob: Yes, yes. I think a main worry on teachers' minds is that there are so many words that kids don't know that they feel they need to give long lists. It's understandably frustrating, and it goes further than what we consider conventional SAT-type vocabulary words; it's any word that kids don't know. I had students who didn't know what a "ladle" was. They may have known what it looked like, but they didn't know the word "ladle." Another time - this was at a high school in Brooklyn - when a lot of kids didn't know what a "hedge" was, I had them go to the window and look at the apartment house across the street. They knew what a "bomber jacket" was, but they didn't know where the word came from that gave the jacket its name. I've learned that many of the words I assume are commonly known are unfamiliar to many students.
Every word expresses an idea. The more words you know, the more ideas you can generate and the more subtly, precisely and expressively you can think. "Quick," "perfunctory" and "cursory," are examples of this. You can always use the word "quick" if you don't know the others. But in the right situations "perfunctory" and "cursory," give a lot more meaning and sense to what you're trying to say.
VT: You're adding more precision to your language.
Bob: Right, and it's the thought, too. There's a world of difference between "accidental," and "inadvertent" -- each word expresses a whole different concept. This is what teachers must do in class, teach the subtlety of language.
I'm still learning words all the time. In fact, when I did each of my books, I learned some words for the first time that I felt should go into the books because I found them valuable in my own life. That's why the books are called "Words That Make a Difference." They make a difference in your expression and even in your thinking. You don't even have to write or speak the words. Just being able to use them in thinking can make a difference to you mentally and emotionally.