Tag Archives: vocabulary

Have a challenge? Need a challenge?

Challenge is a challenging word.

We in education most often use the singular noun to mean a task that demands special effort or dedication, but which is within the ability of the person who accepts the challenge.

We like kids who accept a challenge.

By contrast, we typically use the plural form, challenges, to mean things that require more ability than an individual has, as in “that kid has serious challenges.”

We prefer kids with challenges be in another teacher’s classroom.

I ran across two items today on Twitter that made me think about those two opposing usages.

Challenged workers

The first is a National Skills Coalition report showing roughly 20 million Americans employed in key service-sector industries lack basic skills in literacy, numeracy, or digital problem-solving.

These are people that we educators would probably say “have challenges.”

A large proportion of these people work in just three areas: retail, health care and social assistance, and in food services and accommodations. Surprisingly, 58 percent of them have been with their current employer at least three years, and 23 percent of them are supervisors.

Here’s the most astonishing fact about these workers:

More than one in three (39%) participated in a learning activity over the past 12 months, including 27% who are pursuing a formal degree or certificate.

Ignore for the moment the question of how all those people get into post-secondary education when they trouble with reading, writing, arithmetic, and problem solving: Think about how someone with challenges becomes someone who accepts a challenge.

Workers who take on challenges

There may be many factors the lead to someone accepting a challenge, but they certainly include:

  • Having a personal reason for accepting the challenge of learning.
  • Sensing that doing nothing will produce a bad outcome.
  • Believing the desired outcome is worth the effort it requires.

At some point, we educators have to start figuring out how to get those “kids with challenges” to accept the challenge of learning how to learn what they will need to know in their work and in their lives. It’s particularly important for us to do that for the students who aren’t natural, book-learning scholars: the hands-on, vocational, CTE students.

They crave a challenge, too, and they deserve it.

What else could we be doing to see that all students have opportunities to take on challenges?

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Build in-context vocabulary lists

List of word lists for SAT preparation

Words without context

Most vocabulary builders work in isolation. VocabGrabber works on vocabulary in the context of reading material that you — or your students — create from assigned reading.

By using VocabGrabber, you can develop vocabulary lists from any digitized text.  That means you can build a vocabulary list for your students knowing they will encounter those words in their reading. Words they use are more likely to be remembered than those they merely memorize for a quiz.

VocabGrabber is easy to use

You (or your students) paste a copied passage into the box on the VocabGrabber page and hit the button. (Or if you’ve installed the program in your browser, you can just click the bookmarklet to start the analysis without copying and pasting.) The software analyzes the passage and produces information about words used in it.

The data includes:

  • Word frequency (a key to thesis or theme identification).
  • Relationships of words to each other.
  • Parts of speech of the words as used in the passage.
  • Whether the word is part of a specialized vocabulary, such as technology, history or geography.
  • Definitions of words in the passage with illustrations of the word use in context.

Lists aid reading of complex texts

Being able to generate vocabulary lists easily simplifies preparing students for the kinds of deep analysis they need to read complex texts. By creating and comparing lists for different texts your students must read within a course or across the curriculum, you can determine which terms are most important to teach: They’ll appear on several lists.

Although VocabGrabber is a great tool for teaching literacy, it has two limitations:

  • It does not replace teaching. You have to show students how and why to use the tool.
  • Users need digitized text; print materials won’t work.

If you are teaching a literary classic in the public domain (a Jane Austen novel, for example), or using articles from an online database, finding digital copies won’t be a problem.

If you want Josh and Caitlin to work with their history textbook, you may not find a digital copy.


 

An earlier version of this article appeared in June 2009 issue of Writing Points © 2009 Linda Aragoni

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Wordniks Give New Twist to Definitions

Wordnik is a great resource for teaching language as a topic within the English curriculum.

The Wordnik website focuses on showing how words are used  by writers—not how they should be used, but how they are used, even if the use is what we might consider substandard. Wordnik is not intended to be used as a dictionary: It is for exploring the evolution of language in real time. Instead of just sentence or phrase, you will often get a whole paragraph to make the context clear.

The site is free, but you do have to register to use it.

A version of this article originally appeared in Writing Points for July, 2009, © 2009 Linda Aragoni

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Harness the Power of Words in Teaching Writing

Those of us who teach writing know that words are powerful. All too often, however, we slouch into using comfortable terminology rather than exerting ourselves to find words that will clearly communicate to our students ideas and attitudes we want them to adopt.

We need to train ourselves to think like marketers and advertisers, using language that conveys precise information to our audience, leading them to believe that being able to write competently is both desirable and achievable.

Here are three ways writing teachers can harness word power:

Avoid confusing terms

Many terms in the English/communications teachers’ vocabularies have two or more meanings; sometimes the definitions are even contradictory. For example:

  • A thesis can refer to a single sentence or a book length manuscript.
  • Narrative and exposition are different ways of organizing writing, but narrative writing often includes expository paragraphs.

Such dual meanings can easily bewilder students.

Probably the single biggest source of confusion for writing students, however, is grammar terminology. Many grammar terms are used today to mean what they meant to students clutching quill pens, not what they mean to students scrolling iPads.

For example, students are told that a verb shows “action or state of being” even though the only place they have encountered the word state it referred to a geo-political entity, like Nebraska. Other grammar terms whose everyday contemporary use is different from their original meanings include run-on, tense, and perfect.

Seize alternative language

If students find a term vague or confusing when they first encounter it, their bewilderment is a signal that teachers should look for alternative language. Telling students that an essay is a short piece of nonfiction, for example, does not help them distinguish an essay from a newspaper article or from a travel brochure.

If you teach in a school that uses Common Core State Standards you probably know the CCSS avoids the term essay, preferring terms that describe the content of the writing: arguments and informative or explanatory text. Common Core also avoids the term thesis statement (or thesis sentence), using the term claim instead.

Alternatives to bewildering language could be a circumlocution that uses language students already. Calling an introductory element “a fragment that appears ahead of the main sentence” is an example of such a circumlocution.

Inventing a term that students will understand is another option. I use the term writing skeleton™ instead of outline because I found students associated outlining with identifying points in already-written content. By changing my language enabled them to see how outlining can be used to structure writing they plan to do.

Use positively emotional words

Way too many terms we use in education have unfortunate connotations in the wider world; those connotations scare students in the classroom. By choosing terms that students will hear as positive, useful, and achievable, we can reduce class-induced stress to manageable levels that won’t interfere with learning.

For example, we tell students they must meet terminal objectives, which sound deadly, when we could talk about ultimate objectives, which sound superior to others. Or we urge students to use critical thinking, which sounds nasty, when we could talk about smart thinking or reliable thinking or genuine thinking. Each of those sounds honest and useful.

By matching our terminology to the needs of our students, we can avoid many of the perpetual problems of teaching writing—which would be good for them and us.

[2014-04-25 removed broken link]

 

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Vocabulary lesson plans gain from broader learning focus

Lesson plans for teaching vocabulary to students in the early grades routinely use word-picture associations.  Using such associations teachers can present reading concepts such as how the letter combination a + n becomes imbedded in words such as can, fan, and pan.

The strength of word-picture associations can be so strong that they interfere with students developing more sophisticated understanding of vocabulary later.  Let me illustrate.

Vocabulary lesson at the checkout

photo of tower fan

Could this be a fan?

I was in K-mart one afternoon last summer buying a replacement for my late, lamented tower fan. The cash register in the only open checkout line was operated by a pleasant young man. As there were no other shoppers for him to wait on, we fell into conversation.

“I’m going to be an engineer, ” he said as he handed me the fan.  “I know how air conditioners work. I hope I’ll learn how one of these works.”

I said, “It’s a fan.”

He smiled at my ignorance of engineering.

“Fans,” he said, “are round.”

Rather than debate the point, I asked him if he had ever seen photographs of Japanese geishas with fans.

He had.

I asked him if the fans were round.

They were not.

I asked if he’d ever seen a movie mystery where the police were told to fan out to look for evidence.

He liked those movies.

I asked him whether when the police fanned out they went around in circles.

They did not.

Then I asked him if he’d ever built a campfire.

His family did a lot of camping, so he knew how to build campfires.

I asked if he sometimes had to fan the fire to make it burn.

He did.

“When you fan a fire, do you make circular motions?”

By that time,  I had the budding engineer’s full attention. He realized there was something missing in his understanding of a vocabulary word he’d learned in his Sesame Street years.

In a few sentences, I explained what each of those uses of fan had in common. He could see a general shape and movement were involved in each of the uses of fan.

And he was excited to learn that were he to take my tower fan apart, he would find the blade mechanism bears a striking resemblance to some engineering designs for marine current turbines.

Implications for vocabulary lesson plans

I know that elementary teachers don’t have time to discuss all possible uses of words like fan, can, and pan in a vocabulary lesson. That’s not feasible or necessary.For long-term learning, however, whenever teachers can build into their lesson plans multiple images suggesting different ways vocabulary words can be used—a frying pan, pan for gold, a pan shot in video—they will greatly enhance students’ learning.

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Three unacceptable word confusions

The local Rotary Club has signs up around town about its winter fundraiser at which it is excepting [sic] donations of canned goods for the local food pantry.

Confusing  words with similar sounds or similar spellings, such as  except and accept, is an error not limited to Rotarians.  In fact, most of us occasionally fall into the trap.

Sometimes we fall  because we aren’t sure of the difference between a pair of words. (It took me decades to master the difference between bear and bare.)

Sometimes we slip because our fingers are used to typing certain keystrokes when the dictating voice in our heads pronounces a particular set of sounds.

Sometimes, though, people are confused about terms that neither sound nor look anything alike. Here are three I’ve run across in the last few weeks that people in the education arena need to know.

1. Reprints and citations

I’ve had a rash of people lately requesting permission to reprint material from my website in term papers for graduate courses.  It’s usually obvious that the individual wants only to borrow ideas or quote a couple of sentences with appropriate credit.

Reprints are duplicates of the original, nothing omitted. A reprint request is essentially a request for a one-time use of copyrighted information. The person who intends to copy the material gets advance permission so as not to be charged with copyright infringement.

By contrast, using a small portion of information from a source in a review or analytical paper is considered fair use within the US copyright law and requires no pre- (or post-) approval from the copyright holder. Fair use does require a citation, but that citation is a matter of ethics and academic etiquette rather than a federal copyright issue.

2. Text and graphics

When asked what kind of material they wish to reprint from my website, people invariably check graphic. In most every case, what they explain they want to use is text. Apparently, they think that anything that is visible is a graphic.

In the publishing world, when text and graphic are used as distinct categories, text is written words, such as the material you are reading now. A graphic is an image, such as a diagram, a photograph, or a sketch. A graphic may include text, but it is more than just text.

A small amount of text may make sense out of context. A sentence, for example, may sum up an entire chapter or book. By contrast, a small portion of a graphic almost never is capable of summing up the entire image.

Anyone who wants to use a graphic  is likely to need to seek permission before using the image unless its use is specifically permitted by a Creative Commons license.

3. Royalties and copyrights

A blogger recently recommended websites where people could get royalty-free photographs, which the blogger said could be used without getting the photographer’s permission. The post left the impression that royalty-free means copyright-free.

Not so.

Royalty free means no payment is required; it does not mean no permission is required. Except in cases of works made for hire, the creator of intellectual property is the copyright holder and has the right to restrict where his property is used.

Unless material is labeled for reuse (with a Creative Commons license, for example) or is in the public domain, photographs and other works, once in fixed form, are considered the property of their creator. The creator doesn’t have to register a work or put a copyright notice on it to own the copyright.

Incidentally, under US copyright law, “copyright free” intellectual property doesn’t exist. In the US, intellectual property goes from copyrighted to public domain without a purgatorial copyright-free period; intellectual property either belongs to one person/organization or it belongs to everybody.

Many of the photographs I use are royalty-free photos from Stock.XCHNG . Although the photographers don’t require payment, they typically require both notice to the copyright holder and a credit line in the work in which they are used.

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Word choice activity source

The website Vocabulary.com has many features that writing teachers can use to bolster their teaching.

For example, the section called  Choose your words  gives pairs of word that look or sound similar. It’s a good place to find general words to use for yes-no-why collaborative vocabulary work, a technique that addresses several ELA goals simultaneously.

For example, one of the Choose your words items begins with this question: “If your teacher offered you a choice between an intense course or an intensive one, which one would you choose?”  That word choice question would slip perfectly into the yes-no-why format.

Thanks to my Twitter friends Catherine Hibbard, @WritingTrainer, and Tom Guadagno, @DailyEngHelp, for prompting me to look at the vocabulary.com site.

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