During a stormy February, I was teaching my Pre-IB class about the power of words. We talked about avoiding tired words and using active, vivid verbs. I did lessons on connotation and tone, and on sensory imagery and figurative language. However, I didn’t want my students to just be able to identify language techniques and choose effective words when they write; I want them to understand how language choices can affect meaning. I want them to be able to recognize this in the texts they read as well as use it in their own writing, so I designed a series of lessons and activities to teach them the power of words.
1. Note word choice in the novels they read
After each mini-lesson on word choice, we would read. I instructed the students to get some post-it notes and mark passages that illustrated the author’s use of language. For example, one day they looked for strong verbs and another they looked for words with strong connotation. I ask them to look for one technique only in the beginning, so they can focus without getting over-whelmed. When we finished reading, students did a turn and talk and shared the passages with a partner, explaining the effect of the language choices as well. I was very pleased with the conversations that they had about language — it was clear they were learning!
2. Do group activities to practice what they learn
The students also worked though a series of collaborative activities designed to get them to practice what they had learned. For the first one, I put different scenarios on the top of chart paper, arranged the students in groups, and instructed them to brainstorm words and images that could describe their assigned scenario. After a few minutes I started handing out “cards” to some of the students.
If their group was working on describing the classroom before a math exam, I gave one student a card that read “you’re great at math” and another that said “you have test anxiety; other students received cards that read “tone”, “strong verbs” and “imagery.” I told them to start adding language that reflected what was on their card — and not to tell the others what it said.Once they had finished, I asked the “cardless” kids to guess what was written on their group mates’ cards. After the guessed (or not) the student adhered it beside the words they had written on the poster. If they were having trouble guessing, I hovered and asked some questions to get them there.
This activity worked really well. First, the kids were given the opportunity to see how their words can change a writer’s intended meaning. Someone who is introverted, for example, will describe a busy school hallway very differently than one who is a social butterfly. Their work also provided me with an opportunity to give some formative feedback. One thing I noticed was that most of the students were writing only one word, rather than full phrases. I reminded them of our lesson on imagery and figurative language and told them not to forget to use those tools as well.
Next up came one of my favourite group exercises. In the past I’ve had students work in groups to write a descriptive paragraph that captures the essence of a sour key. I use it to teach the power of brainstorming, by having the students brainstorm words/phrases to describe it in three stages: how it looks, how it feels and how it tastes. Then they write a group paragraph with the best one winning the remaining candy. Competition is always fierce!
This time, however, I threw in a twist. After they had done their initial brainstorming, I gave each group a card that instructed them to write from a certain perspective. One group wrote as health enthusiasts and another as sugar addicts. One group wrote as though they were dentists, and another as candy “snobs”. The resulting paragraphs were, of course, very different, and the kids got to see, once again, how language shapes meaning.
3. Assess learning quickly and effectively
Finally, I had them do a writing prompt based on this photograph:
Before they wrote, I asked them to consider the girl: does she like to be by herself? Does she hate the cold? Is she an explorer? A dreamer? Why is she there? I gave them a few minutes to decide on the perspective from which they would write, then gave them time to complete the task.
The descriptive paragraph was one of the many writing prompts that they had in their journals. The journals had a variety of entries, and not all descriptive. I wanted them to recognize that language is equally as important in expository and persuasive writing, and after each entry, I asked them to go back and underline at least two places where they used language for effect.
When I collected the journals, I did not write a single thing in the margins. Instead, I used a pink and a yellow highlighter. If I saw an example of effectively used language, I highlighted it in yellow; I used the pink one for language that could be more powerful. I did this twice in each journal entry, and when I passed them back, I told the students to look it over and try to figure out what my color code meant. They weren’t long in doing so — another sign that they had learned. Next, I had them attempt to use stronger language for their “pink” phrases, and write it in the margin. I’ll look at their changes the next time we conference.
I’ve created two new products that are focused on teaching kids to use their words wisely. If you’re interested, you can check them out: Writing Lessons: Word Choice and Writing Challenges.