As the cold grips most of the United States, we begin today by asking you to imagine “unbearably humid” weather. (Does this ease the bite of the winter chill?) If you were describing this to someone who had never before experienced it, what words would you use to help them understand what it’s like outside?
When we did this, we imagined a 90 degree day in August in New Orleans, Louisiana. We pictured ourselves catching our breath after stepping outdoors from the temperature controlled indoors. The air feels thick, so thick that we imagine cutting it with a knife. And it’s heavy. And wet. Within moments, our skin is clammy, our clothes are drenched with sweat.
In December, a Florida newspaper ran an article about the weather and described this year’s early winter as “unbearably humid.” When Kim and her husband read this, they looked at each other– the weather they had recently experienced had been in the low eighties. While there had been some humidity, perhaps they might go so far as to call it unseasonable humidity, calling it unbearable was just…funny.
This newspaper article became great fodder for teaching students about the importance of words. Kim brought this article with her to a sixth grade class where they looked closely at it, wondering if they’d find other words that indicated the author intended to write humorously about the weather. However, they didn’t. Analyzing in this way helped them to realize how one misplaced word can distract a reader, bringing the importance of words into focus. They talked about how authors use words to communicate their message and how one little word can change the meaning of everything.
Marilyn Jager Adams says, “Words are not just words. They are the nexus—the interface—between communication and thought. When we read, it is through words that we build, refine, and modify our knowledge. What makes vocabulary valuable and important is not the words themselves so much as the understandings they afford.” Words not only matter when we read, but they matter when we write and speak as well. If we aim to help children understand their world better, developing vocabulary is paramount to our work. We offer the following tips as reminders of how to help expand children’s vocabularies on a day-to-day basis:
1. Read aloud!
Written text is the best source of new vocabulary for students. Hearing new words read aloud in meaningful contexts prompts inquiry about words. When listening to engaging stories and ideas communicated through read aloud, children will often notice words that they’ve never before heard and ask, “What does that mean?”
2. Provide ample opportunity for students to talk.
Talk provides students opportunities to use the new words they are encountering. Allowing students time to discuss their ideas about books or process their learning at other times in the day gives them a chance to try out content-specific vocabulary and try-on new words. Using words in meaningful contexts helps students to remember and retain new vocabulary.
3. Make sure students write–often and a lot!
Writing also allows students opportunities to use new words. Experiencing the struggle of figuring out just the right word to complete a sentence or convey a message the way it is imagined, reinforces the importance of words and reminds children that the more words they know, the better they communicate.
For more of our thoughts on vocabulary instruction, watch this short, learning video.