Vocab activities for your classroom
Better Off Banished?
Lake Superior State University released its 2012 List of Banished Words this month — a collection of words they deem as "Banished from the Queen's English for Misuse, Overuse and General Uselessness." Teachers, if you shared this news with your students, however, they probably wouldn't recognize this list of words and phrases as "overused."
With the exception of amazing, most of these words seem to have made the cut for being worn out by the media (e.g., occupy), politicians (e.g., win the future), or business types (e.g., thank you in advance). Since this list probably won't resonate with your students, a great exercise for you to undertake as a class would be to collectively compile a more appropriate "banished words" list of those words and phrases they can identify as misused, overused, and useless in their own writing.
What Words to Ban?
Every teacher probably has his or her own set of pet peeve words, but here are some general categories of words and phrases that most writers agree would be better off banished.
Intensifiers is a fancy linguistic term for all those words that students use for emphasis in an attempt to add weight to an otherwise light-weight adjective. They are the verbal equivalent of exclamation points, except they usually precede the word they are trying to underscore. And just like exclamation points, developing writers tend to wear them out. For example: The book wasn't just interesting; it was really, really interesting.
Below is a list of common intensifiers you may want to ban, but of course your list should be tailored to the writing habits of your student population. If you have British students, you would add bloody to the list; if in Boston, wicked, and if in California, you might add hella. (I once mentioned mad as an intensifier (as in "mad smart") to a teacher audience in Tennessee, and they had no idea what I was referencing.)
Banning intensifiers goes hand-in-hand with banning the ho-hum adjectives that they are usually trying to modify. This is where a thesaurus comes in handy. (Check out the lesson plan "When You Reeeaaallly Want to Say Something" for more on this.) If a student writes about feeling really sad, displaying the word map for sad in the Visual Thesaurus drives home the point: there are a lot of ways to feel sad, which one do you mean?
Cliches are phrases that have been exploited so often by writers that they have lost their intended impact. The first guy who called a punch in the mouth a knuckle sandwich sounded like a genius. Try using it now, and you'll sound dated and nerdy.
I won't even attempt to suggest a list of clichés your students might be littering throughout their writing; there are just too many. And, I think it's best to not institute a dogmatic "no cliches" policy in your writing class, since clichés like "bad hair day" or "clean your clock" can lend voice to a dry narrative. You want to raise cliché awareness, but you also need to communicate that writers effectively use clichés as well. Provide your students with a comprehensive cliché site (such as this one) and ask them to evaluate which cliches they could use sparingly and which ones they should altogether avoid.
Students often frame their opinions and organize their essays with "wind up" phrases like "I think that," "I feel that," "In my opinion," or "In conclusion." These phrases come naturally to developing writers who are trying hard to sound like essay writers (or what they think essay writers should sound like). However, wind-up phrases can give an otherwise decent essay a formulaic or wishy-washy tone. If students need to use wind-up phrases in a first draft — just to get their thoughts down, that's fine, but make sure to banish them by the final draft.
Let the Stats do the Talking
A fun exercise to help your students realize just how repetitive their word patterns can be is to have them copy and paste a piece of writing into VocabGrabber and click on "Grab Vocabulary." The largest words appearing in the "grabbed" tag cloud are those words that appear the most frequently in their text. If students use the "List View" option and sort their grabbed word lists by "Occurrences," they can see exactly how many times they used each word.
Take this sample of student writing — an essay from BookRags on friendship — as an example. When I pasted this text into VocabGrabber and sorted the grabbed word list by "Occurences" to assess which words appeared most often in the text, I discovered that the word true was used nine times in this four-paragraph essay.
Once students see their word patterns enumerated and deconstructed before them on the screen, they can evaluate if the repetition was a conscious rhetorical device or whether it was careless. And, if they decide it was the latter, they can turn to the thesaurus for word choice inspiration.
What's important in establishing a set of banished words for your classroom is to not simply adopt some other teacher's or writing guru's list of pet peeves and post them on your class bulletin board. Lists could vary based on content area, audience, assignment, or even culture. Get your students invested in the process of discovering which words they have worn out and would be better off retiring.