Over the past couple of months my 4 year old has become increasingly demanding. Almost daily I've heard, “Do this” or “I need a drink." I have found myself taking a lot of deep breaths, and thinking what happened to all those sweet words like “please” and “thank you” that I used to hear. I decided the next time I was met with a demand instead of answering him I would simply say, “Can you say that in a different way?” The first time I tried this I was of course met with a blank stare, but in time I could see him start to think about his word choice. It was amazing because he began to try out new words like fantastic or grateful. It also sparked conversations between the two of us about the meaning of different words and the context in which they can be used. I felt so wonderful that asking one question could not only start to curb the demands of my son, but could also open the door to a whole world of words!
I began to wonder if asking that question to the teachers and writers that I work with would be met with the same kind of thinking and wondering. I feel like a common struggle among literacy teachers during many writing units is that the students are trying out a variety of strategies in their pieces, but they have a lot of repetition of the same words. It seems like a revision strategy of adding beautiful language to our piece is a natural way to begin. When I have tried this the results have been wonderful for that piece, but the beautiful language does not seem to make it to our next writing piece. I remember a workshop that I went to where Ralph Fletcher spoke. He started the talk by asking, “Are we giving our students the opportunity to play with words?” It dawned on me that in the conversations I was having with my son that we were playing with words. We were talking about meaning and trying words out in different ways. This experience allowed different words to become a part of his automatic vocabulary.
As a teacher and coach I know that a lot of my word work was centered around spelling patterns, diagraphs, blends, prefixes, and suffixes with our daily word study time. What I had forgotten about was the conversations students could be having about an author’s word choice and the meaning of different words. I think we need to give students opportunities throughout the day to play with words, and not just hold that work to within the writer’s workshop or word study. With a group of 2nd grade teachers we began to try out “word play” during different parts of our day. Here’s what we found:
- Morning Meeting provides a great opportunity to discuss new words and their meaning.
- Read Aloud lets us choose books with very rich language. During the read aloud you can think aloud and offer turn and talks about the meaning of different words and how they fit with the story.
- Shared Reading within a week can have one day devoted to looking closely at some of the words and trying to think of a similar word that could fit.
- Word Webs are useful. Fountas and Pinnell talk in their book, Word Matters, about using word webs to think about meaning, parts of speech, prefixes, and suffixes. They suggest we hang word webs in a place where children will know where to look if they are stuck thinking about a word they may want to use in their writing.
- Word Wizards are helpful. Beck and McKowen introduce the concept of Word Wizards in their book Bringing Words to Life. Kids become word wizards when they find words you may have webbed or talked about in their independent reading. They can also become a wizard if they find an interesting word in their books that they have thought about the meaning or how the author uses the word. We can give students time to share their findings during partner talk or the teahcing share. If at the beginning of the school year teachers took pictures of students wearing a wizard hat the students who share could have their picture displayed for the day as “today’s word wizards!"
These are just a few ideas of many that allow students more time to play with words. Whatever you try remember that the more students are thinking about different word meanings, and how they can be used, the more likely students are to take a risk and use that word when they are talking. As they gain greater confidence in growing their oral vocabulary, hopefully we will see them start to take some risks in their word choice as writers as well.
Happy Word Play!