How can you say you know a word if you have never spoken it aloud? How can you "own" a word if you have never used it? These are some of the questions that Heidi Hayes Jacobs prompts us to consider in her widely acclaimed book for educators Active Literacy Across the Curriculum.

As an antidote to the common yet ineffective practice of silently distributing word lists and expecting students to magically incorporate those words into their personal vocabulary repertoires, Jacobs tells us to take cues from our fellow teachers in the foreign language department:

"Walk into any French, Spanish, Mandarin, Japanese or Italian language class and you will hear the teacher asking students to speak out loud. If you walk into Mr. Mendez's Spanish class, you hear students repeating words. They say them aloud; they attempt to say them properly; they employ them in a context; and they learn to speak Spanish. Think of how absurd it would be if Mr. Mendez said: "Watch me. Listen to me speak Spanish, but don't say anything out loud." (p. 19)

If "content teachers" never venture to create activities that compel students to use new words — the same words that appear in their textbooks and come out of their teachers' mouths — one subtext of the curriculum will be that textbook writers, standardized test makers, and teachers have their own set of vocabulary and students are resigned to a more limited set of words. Teachers need to design activities that encourage their students to take risks by saying and using new words aloud in the classroom, in an environment that rewards this type of verbal experimentation. 

Consider words that you may see often in your reading but you are not quite sure how to pronounce. That fear of mispronunciation is enough to drive you to a safer synonym. Who needs to try to say "ennui" when you can just say "boredom"? Or why refer to a "riposte" in a classroom debate, when "comeback" is on the tip of your tongue?

A less intimidating way to ease students into using new words aloud in class is to have students engage in oral reading exercises where they are quoting a text. One such exercise you could try is text rendering. Text rendering is an activity that gives students an opportunity to break down a text into chunks, forcing them to decide which words, phrases, sentences and paragraphs hold the most meaning for them as readers and should be shared aloud in class.

Here is one variation of text rendering that you can use with any reading passage:

  1. Select a vocabulary-rich text that contains words you have already reviewed in class but that your students have not yet mastered or used independently.
  2. Instruct the class to read the text silently and independently, underlining those paragraphs, sentences, phrases and words that they find "powerful" or important in the passage.
  3. Have each student choose one paragraph, one sentence or phrase, and one single word that he or she will share with the class orally. Students unsure about how to pronounce words in their selections should consult Visual Thesaurus, or another online dictionary, that has audio pronunciations of the words in its database. (Visual Thesaurus pronunciations can be heard by clicking on the speaker icon next to the central word in each word map display.)
  4. Ask students to read aloud their selections "in rounds" — beginning with having students each share their paragraphs, then their sentences or phrases, and ending with a round of individual words.  Emphasize that repetition of selected passages and words is to be expected and even encouraged.
  5. You can opt to have students read in a particular order (e.g., reading around a circle) or you could leave it more open — allowing students to chime in when ready. Just establish that each reader must participate in each round and must withhold comments until the end of the text rendering process.
  6. Hold a reflective discussion about any patterns that emerged in the session. During this discussion, encourage students to use the vocabulary in the text in their discussion comments. Why did many students select some of the same words and phrases? Were there moments in the rendering process that felt or sounded like a dialogue? Which words were selected because they were central to the focus of the text? Which words or phrases were chosen for other reasons?
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Georgia Scurletis is Director of Curriculum for the Visual Thesaurus and Before coming to Thinkmap, she spent 18 years as a curriculum writer and classroom teacher. Georgia has written curriculum materials for a variety of Web sites (WGBH, The New York Times Learning Network, Edsitement) and various school districts. While teaching high school English in Brooklyn, she was a recipient of the New York State English Council's Educators of Excellence Award, the Brooklyn High Schools' Recognition Award, and The New York Times' Teachers Who Make a Difference Award. Click here to read more articles by Georgia Scurletis.