Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

"We're Only Doing This Because You Like Words!"

The title of this month's column is a direct quote from one of my students. Please imagine it being delivered in an accusatory tone. What caused such a lament? You see, I had the audacity to suggest that learning new words was, well, fun.

This year, I'm teaching 12th-grade English, and that means higher-level reading, higher-level writing, and, of course, SAT words. (In other schools, SAT words might be part of the 11th grade curriculum, and to that I say, "More power to you." That's probably the right way to go, but since we give the Regents in English Language Arts in June, that was our end-of-the-Junior-year focus.) My student's comment above was in response to the word "encomium," one of the words I found on the SAT vocab list.

Do my students need to know the word "encomium"? We could have a philosophical debate about that, but, given that in 36 years I've never once read or used it, I would say, "No. Not really." And that was the crux of my student's comment. Why bother using a big, fancy, Latin-y word that even Visual Thesaurus will tell you means virtually the same thing as "eulogy" or "paean"? After all, didn't Ms. Reed just make us learn the word "eulogy" last year? And now we have to learn a more complicated version of that word? That was the heart of his accusation – that I made them do this because I like words.

Guilty. I do like words. "Encomium" is pretty; finding it gave me a thrill of excitement, and I can't wait to use it in conversation or in an email. (I haven't found the right place yet, but I am sure that soon, someone will do something so nice for me that I will have to pen them an encomium. Anyone want to step up?). But even I can see that it's not a necessary word, not like "water" or "toilet" or "bubble bath."

But what is? We can probably cover the basic human needs in about 50 words. Throw in another 40 for moods, weather, and judgemental asides — well, anyway, isn't there a statistic floating around about how most American use only 20% of the available words in the English language? My student isn't phrasing his complaint as such, but his argument is one of utility. Why bother learning words that we don't really need? Why bother with SAT words at all?

In Which I Preach To You, My Choir

I recognize that someone reading this column, in an online magazine devoted to words, probably does not need to hear an argument in favor of words, (unless, I suppose, you are doing opposition research). But, if you'll bear with me, I'll sketch out the basic argument I make in class when a student questions the point of learning new words. I point out, first of all, that they usually have no resistence to learning new words outside of an academic context. To prove my point, I wonder aloud how often the American Colonists greeted each other with "What's poppin'?" or how many of my students still announce that they need "to go potty" as many of us learned to do as children? In other words (hee), the acquisition of new language is, itself, quite natural and enjoyable. On a pure level, the vast majority of us enjoy learning new words to use in order to express ourselves with more clarity and/or reveal who we are.

Then, I point out, that the issue in the classroom is that the process we're engaging in is not natural, but forced. This usually gets a round of righteous "Yeah!"s, with which I agree. However forced as said process may be, I go on, the acquisition of new words is still a necessary part of intellectual growth, as well as a part of most forward movement in life. While SAT words can seem somewhat arbitrary (especially if you have a capricious teacher who chooses words because they sound pretty), language acquisition in nearly every other area of life is vital. Someone studying to be a nurse learns the names of muscles; someone learning to be a chef learns what the difference is between "dicing" and "mincing." These are required for clear communication in their work, and all jobs of every level and sector have required vocabularies that will need to be acquired — and the process could be forced or natural, or both. Hobbies, family life, new destinations and so on also require new words. I didn't need to know "queue" until I lived in England. None of us needed to know what a "chad" was until late 2000. We need new words, constantly.

At this point, my students look a little abashed, but there's always one who isn't buying this yet. I try to relate it to him or her personally – pointing to a football player that he needs to know what "offsides" is (even if I do not actually understand what it is), or to a dancer than she must know what "double-time" means – but sometimes there is a still a hold-out. And that's when it's time to think about why new words are scary.

Why New Words Are Scary

I read significantly above my grade level for most of my school career. Yay, me! (Conversely, I still cannot do the most basic math, and last week my science teacher friend gently explained plate tectonics to me, so...) This meant that I encountered, and then adopted, words that were much more sophisticated that the average 3rd grader's vocabulary. That's all well and good, except that I didn't know how to say the words correctly, and I often came up with my own pronunciation (which was wrong). No one really corrected me, and that is why, as a 33-year-old, I finally found out that "ethereal" is not pronounced "Eth-a-real." Oh.

I bring this up because it seems to me that there is a particular shame in mispronouncing words. We all have either messed up a word's pronunciation (I have had the good luck to mess up not just "ethereal" but "deluge" "abscond" and "ogle" and probably a few more that I haven't realized yet), and/or mocked someone's mispronunciation. Remember when President George Bush messed up "nuclear" ("messed up" meaning, in this case, "saying it just as 60% of the country says it")? The press had a field day, bringing it up again and again. The subliminal message in our society is that people who say words wrong are stupid — even though we all say words incorrectly from time to time. I daresay that most of us have a word that we say incorrectly pretty much all the time. (I'm looking at you, "amiable.")

I've seen this slip-up happen in many environments: at a press conference when I was a reporter, in the preschool classroom, in a high school classroom, in a board meeting, in rehearsal. Inevitably, the person who mispronounced looks ashamed. I know that when I do it, I feel ashamed.

Given that, is it any wonder that my students don't want to learn new words? No one likes to feel ashamed, and no one feels quite so exposed as a high school student speaking in front of her peers.

This is exactly why acquiring new words seems less like fun and more like walking into a landmined field, especially if someone know-it-all pops up to correct us. Everyone's an expert on something, right? I keep meeting people who are experts on pronouncing "amiable."

This shame of which I write is key. I see it whenever I ask my students to use the new words they've learned in a sentence for the class. They'll volunteer to read the sentence, but when they get to the new, hard-to-say word, they look expectantly at me. This quickly grows frustrating. Last week, one of our words was "eschew" and after a while, I felt like I was playing the part of "eschew" in some surrealist drama.

By the way, it strikes me as quite funny that we don't have the same societal scorn for using a word incorrectly in meaning. We might sense that the person means "amused" when they say "bemused" and I know that there is a whole underground community who cringes at the misuse of "presently." But we don't often point it out to the mis-user. Nope. Just the mispronouncer. Hmm.

Vocab Serenity, Now!

What to do, what to do? How to help my students broaden their vocabularies against their wills? Well, I do trust that simply introducing these words to my students will make some of them lodge into their memories. It's also good, as I have discussed in the past, to make vocab acquistion fun and meaningful, both in-context and out-of-context. Moreover, though, I think it's important that we take the shame out of word acquistion. I've mentioned this before, but let's think about what that truly means.

First, it means that we need to settle on how a word should be pronounced. In my classroom, we defer to the oratorial tones of Whomever Does the Visual Thesaurus Pronunciations. We can easily use our computers to click on the little megaphone next to any word on the VT and hear it said aloud. That becomes the pronunciation we go with. I have had my disagreements with WDtheVTP but I've realized that the error has been mine (or my childhood community's tacit agreement), not the impeccable website's.

Then, we practice saying the words. I believe in the 10x Rule. Say it 10 times, correctly, and you've probably got it. (It worked for "Bethesda" and me, and believe me, my brother, who lives near Bethesda, was much relieved.)

That done, we try very hard to say the word correctly, gently reminding each other of how we're supposed to say it. I do try to keep the mockery to a minimum here. Sometimes I throw it back on the mocker ("You say it, then" — and if they do so correctly, I compliment and move on). And sometimes I just remind the class that everyone misprounces words from time to time. If they seem unusually picky, I launch into a long-winded, much-repeated monologue on the fluidity of the English language, and how words that were one pronounced that way are now pronounced this way — and that generally gets the point across.

And I try to apply the same enthusiasm for experimentation that I see in good Science or Theatre classrooms in my classroom, too. While it can't be a policy of anything goes – after all, we do need to actually understand what we are hearing – there should be a spirit of attempt. I applaud (sometimes literally) my students when they attempt to use a new word, especially outside of vocab practice. Their meaning or pronunciation may be off, but they are trying and that is something that I want to celebrate.

If we are doing all of these things, consistently, I've noticed that the enthusiasm for learning new words picks up. It becomes a process of having more tools to work with, instead of a heavy burden of more bricks to tote around. And that is what a vocabulary should do, I think: allow one to express oneself as clearly and appropriately as possible. It's like William Morris's famous home decorating dictum: "Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful." Our vocabularies should be the same.

An Encomium for "Encomium"

Alas, as so often happens, my passionate speech to my student who didn't want to learn "encomium" fell on bored/frustrated ears. Sometimes, it's best to just let things go and move on – we only have 45 minutes each day after all – so we moved down the list to the next word. But a few days later, the same student approached me. The anniversary of his cousin's death approached, and he wondered if I would like to read a poem he had written for her. It was titled "Encomium." I didn't say anything about it, but he said, quietly, "It just seemed like the right word." I thought so, too.

What are your thoughts? I'm always glad to read them. And stop by next month for an update on our Playwriting in Science curriculum (or, as I have insisted on naming it, "SciPlay"!).

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An award-winning playwright and former contributor to the Visual Thesaurus Teachers at Work department, Shannon Reed is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also teaches. Read more about her work at shannonreed.org. Click here to read more articles by Shannon Reed.

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Comments from our users:

Monday October 18th 2010, 2:17 AM
Comment by: David D. (Seattle, WA)
Oh, ouch! I have read above my pay grade for so long I can't remember the beginning and I turned 73 today so it may have been awhile. But I read alone and silently and now that I am in a group reading books aloud, I must learn to pronounce correctly. Not easy. In my head it sounded just fine for years but "ped-i-strain-ean" does not mean "a person who walks" to most people. And how did a word that looks like "see-goo" get to sound all arrogantly like "seg-way?" On the other hand, my insatiable curiosity caused me to learn of "plate tectonics" and numerous esoterica long ago. Still, I am able to be a carpenter, house painter, telephonic technician ... and other odd things, but not feel secure in matters of mathematics.
Grace is a sense of humor, especially in being able to laugh at oneself. I conclude that it is all a heck of a lot of fun.
Monday October 18th 2010, 8:50 AM
Comment by: Beth L. (Waupun, WI)
I apologize as I voted incorrectly on this, skewing the results. I meant to give it five stars. Bravo!
Monday October 18th 2010, 9:15 AM
Comment by: Valerie R.
The word "encomium" never struck me as being pretty. It always reminded me of "meconium" (look it up).
Monday October 18th 2010, 9:54 AM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)
As one who was known as Mrs. Malaprop in grammar school, I know the difficulties of learning words through context - words one never heard used. And this was back in the days when good dictionaries were literaly too heavy for me to lift. Pronouncing those words didn't even occur to me until later in my educational career. I can't claim I do it right now.

But I hate to let even one of those curious old words fall out of understanding. They come so heavily spiced with history. Encomium has much of the library dust of Dickens, as well as lovely possibilities for adding political irony to your soup. Is there any possibility your students might like the words better with small tales of their histories, complete with the epic death of cultures? I see you shaking your head. Well, fight the good fight. Teachers like you are my heroes.
That's an encomium, with no irony at all.
Monday October 18th 2010, 11:02 AM
Comment by: Sherri M. (Atkinson, NH)
I would suggest that kids do like new words - but not the ones that grown-ups want them to learn! Every generation has its own slang words that only kids use and today's generation has an entire language of its own in texting. Eventually these words are co-opted by the older generation and the next wave of kids has to think up new ones. Perhaps incorporating mutual learning into vocabulary lessons would be productive - each time the students learn a new word, one of them teaches you a texting abbreviation, a specialized term from video gaming, an essential word from a sport they play or a musical instrument they study or any kind of hobby. The usual caveats about school sppropriate would have to apply.
Monday October 18th 2010, 11:51 AM
Comment by: Julie C
Misled - do you say "mizzled" or "myzzled"? I find it's about half and half, but most people flat-out don't say "miss-led." I remember the day the right pronunciation dawned on me!
Monday October 18th 2010, 12:53 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Julie: Confusion over the pronuncation of "misled" prompted members of the alt.usage.english newsgroup to call such words "misles." Check out the a.u.e's misle list here. (My stumpers were always "miniseries" and "biopic.")
Monday October 18th 2010, 2:24 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Julie, I have to go and be different. I say, "miss - lead" (like the element) or 'led' as the past tense of winning a race or ahead in something. No zeds in my word! (How about that 'zed'? That threw me for a few years!)

I think there's an advantage for those who've studied (or been exposed sufficiently to) Latin. We learned a rule for figuring out stressed and unstressed syllables, something about the penultimate... which I cannot now remember. But something seems to point to stressed syllables, and from there on, I can get the sounds of the unstressed -- in a great many words. Then again, perhaps it was listening to radio and to my parents, rather than simply reading voraciously.

I can get the pronunciation. Just don't challenge me with the spelling!

I agree with the poster who said we should face these situations with humour... or humor (take your pick). I don't like people being criticized either for making up a word innocently or for mispronouncing one. But I get weary of mis-pro-NOUN-ciations from time to time. LOL
Monday October 18th 2010, 6:03 PM
Comment by: Shannon R. (Brooklyn, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Sherri, I love to learn new slang from my kids! (And they love to hear me mangle it!). Here's a link to a VT article I wrote about doing so... http://www.visualthesaurus.com/cm/teachersatwork/1627/
Wednesday October 20th 2010, 12:02 AM
Comment by: Mo (Wanganui New Zealand)
well it seems the world is smaller than i thought. as an art teacher, from my year 10, 11 and 12 (13,14, 15 years), i constantly get from them when faced with a research exercise - 'if i had wanted to read i would have done english.' what can one say except reading is essential all our lives.

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When it comes to teaching vocabulary, Shannon discovered, context isn't always key.
Shannon continues her discussion on the benefits of teaching vocabulary out of context.
Shannon tells of how she is incorporating playwriting into a science curriculum.