by Lori Conrad
Okay. I admit it. I’m a word nerd. There’s nothing I like better than a word-a-day calendar. I’m a sucker for books with titles like The Grammarians and The Liar’s Dictionary. I subscribe to three, well maybe four, word-centric social media sites. I always click on articles like “15 Americanisms You Won’t Find Anywhere Else” and “9 Words Removed from the Dictionary”. I kind of get a thrill when I come across words like hyponatremia or callithump or ctenophores in my reading. I’ve been known to send pictures to family and friends of signs that use language in interesting ways – like the one I just sent my bird-shirt loving son that read: One Bird Can’t Make a Pun . . . But Toucan! And don’t get me started on how much I love a good “made-up” word that is perfect for its context and absolutely should be added to Webster’s dictionary (like when a writer coined schlockenspiel to describe the ridiculous Triforium in LA or when the Denver Post proudly coined Omahallelujah when the Broncos won Super Bowl 50). Yes, I’m a word nerd.
And my goal is to build the ranks of fellow nerds. After a year together, my kindergartners were proud, badge-wearing “Word Explorers”. My 5th graders proclaimed themselves “Word People”. In both cases, I felt a sincere sense of mission accomplished.
Regardless of the title we gave ourselves, we shared a love for the sounds and sentiments of language. We were curious about letters and words and sentences. We found JOY in the messiness and wonderment of it all.
With today’s heavy-handed push toward published curriculum, letter study and word work isn’t inspiring much curiosity and even less joy. So what to do if, like me, you want to support and celebrate rooms full of word nerds?
Make Room for Study that Begins with Students’ Questions
In the introduction to his book, The Curious Classroom, Harvey “Smokey” Daniels defines teaching via inquiry this way: “. . . building instruction out of children’s curiosity, rather than from a curriculum guide, a standard textbook, or a handed-down unit . . . investigating and exploring, instead of just sitting and listening . (creating) an active, lively space where children make choices and take responsibility for their learning . . . (building) classrooms where teachers flow between their role as an expert and their job as lead learners . . . “ (pg. xi) This sort of inquiry stance grows students’ word consciousness, e.g., their awareness, enjoyment, playfulness, interest, appreciation and satisfaction in knowing and using words well!
“How come it sounds like /t/ but it’s spelled ed?”
“Is there ever a word that has a q and not a u?”
“Is it tion or sion? How do I figure it out?”
It’s questions like these that give our studies direction. We start with a question. We search for words/examples that might provide an answer(s). We name possible patterns that lead to a ‘rule’ or generalization we might test out in our daily reading and writing. We find exceptions or ‘non-examples’. And finally, we name all the ways this new knowledge, new thinking matters.
Curate Book Stacks that Mentor a Love of Language
We all know the power of a great stack of books. They can teach us everything from how to treat a new friend to how to craft a fabulous sentence. They can also help us fall in love with words. My friend and colleague, Franki Sibberson, is spending the year sharing various text sets in her blog, A(nother) Year of Reading. A few weeks ago she wrote about her collection designed to help readers fall in love with words and word play. In this blog post, she reminds us that kids “are much better able to pay attention to the skills of words (vocabulary, parts of speech, spelling patterns, etc.) once they see how amazing words are.” A book stack can invite learners to simply delight in words. A few favorites in my stack are:
- CDB! by William Steig (my first in the stack)
- Take Away the A by Michaeil Escoffier
- Wonderful Words by Lee Bennett Hopkins
- Misery is a Smell in Your Backpack by Harriet Ziefert
- Words by Roald Dahl
- A Dictionary for a Better World by Charles Waters and Irene Latham
A Walk in the Words by Hudson Talbott (my most recent in the stack)
Study the Word-Level Patterns in Students’ Reading and Writing
The most reliable source of information for planning authentic, ‘just in time’ instruction is now, and always will be, the learners themselves. When I take the time to study what students are figuring out about print, through the conversations we have about their reading/writing and through samples of their actual reading/writing, I always come away with a plethora of next steps for my teaching. When I let kids lead the way, learning always follows!
My friend and colleague, Cheryl Zimmerman, shared this ‘flow map’ that captures what I mean:
Gather Student Work Samples
Anchoring word study instruction to students’ ongoing writing helps create long-lasting impact for students.
Clarify Assessment Lens
Each piece of writing can offer insights into students’ progress toward achieving overall literacy standards and/or specific standards that match recent instruction.
It’s essential to always have an asset mentality when examining student work. It’s all too easy to get lost in what students can’t yet do and miss all the successes they are having as writers and thinkers.
Plan for Next Steps
What new piece of information will offer the greatest leverage for students’ writing success? What context would this instruction best fit? In a one-on-one writing conference? As a whole-class inquiry study? With a small group of writers?
It might sound simple, maybe too simple, but classroom teachers are the most important factor in creating legions of word nerds. Without teachers, kids might discover the power of language. Then again, they might not. But when learners get to link arms with others who are fascinated by the words in our world, and when one of those fellow word nerds is their teacher, they become wide-awake word wonderers! So trust that you play an amazing role in this journey. Like Jennifer Scoggin and Hannah Schneewind state at the end of the introduction to their book, Trusting Readers: Powerful Practices for Independent Reading (and I’m paraphrasing):
“I invite you to trust yourself to make decisions about what is best for the students in your classroom based on what you know about them. I invite you to trust your students to lead the way. I invite you to trust the beauty of naming students’ strengths and using those as a jumping-off point. I invite you to trust in the power of having your own life as a word nerd!”
Whether you call me a logophile (a lover of words) or a logomaniac (a person who is obsessively interested in words), my name is Lori and I’m crazy about words!
Lori L. Conrad has over 36 years of experience as a teacher, literacy consultant and classroom coach. During these years, she’s worked alongside some pretty amazing learners and wonderfully thoughtful colleagues throughout Colorado and the United States. She’s published numerous articles about reading and writing, and is the co-author of Put Thinking to the Test (published by Stenhouse). Lori’s family includes four dear adult children, a terrific husband, a big dog, and a beautiful new grandson. Lori is co-chairing the 2023 CCIRA Conference with Patrick Allen. She can be reached via email at email@example.com.