Without sounding like a lexiphanicist in this post, I’d like to share a blog I often read called “Letters of Note.” This blog collects interesting letters and correspondence. Recently, I read a letter written by screenwriter Robert Pirosh in 1934 to all the directors and studio executives that he could think of while trying to get a new job.
The letter begins:
I like words. I like fat buttery words, such as ooze, turpitude, glutinous, toady. I like solemn, angular, creaky words, such as straitlaced, cantankerous, pecunious, valedictory. I like spurious, black-is-white words, such as mortician, liquidate, tonsorial, demi-monde. I like suave “V” words, such as Svengali, svelte, bravura, verve.
I used the Lexile analyzer to get a preliminary lexile level (quantitative measure only) of this short note. Even with its powerful words, it topped out at 1150, a full 200 points below the top level for college and career readiness for students graduating 12th grade. But still, fat and buttery words make for a more complex and interesting read.
I’ve written about vocabulary being one of the three most important things to consider when aligning curriculum to the Common Core State Standards. Within this shift, students are expected to use puissant and herculean words across all of the content areas. Likewise, teachers are expected to develop students’ ability to use and access words, be strategic about new vocabulary words and work with words frequently.
Teaching unique terms in a specific way is probably the strongest action a teacher can take to ensure that students have the academic background knowledge they need to understand the content they will encounter in school. When all of the teachers in a school focus on the same academic vocabulary and are committed to specific strategies for teaching domain-specific vocabulary, then the school has a powerful comprehensive approach. I keep related resources for districts on a wiki called Innovativocab.
Building effective vocabulary with students means that every teacher in every class is committed to engaging both academic and domain-specific words. Effective vocabulary instruction is prepared for, specifically engaged and situational. Instruction is engaged multiple times and focuses on fewer words, perhaps sesquipedalian, learned at a greater depth. Multiple exposure, visualizations and discussions are the right ways to enhance academic success for all students.
I recently had an opportunity to Skype with fourth- and fifth-graders at Martin J. Gottlieb Day School in Jacksonville, Fla. During the conversation, I introduced a couple of words that they didn’t know. At one point, I was asking them to be emphatic and demonstrative when they write. The students didn’t know the word “emphatic” so we stopped to discuss it. We talked about the known word “emphasize” and how the new word is a version of the known word. Several students used online definitions to put into their own words and share with their classmates. I brought the conversation back to our task, using the word emphatic, knowing that the students understood it.
A couple of years ago, I blogged about these strategies related to specific vocabulary instruction, a la Bob Marzano’s Building Academic Vocabulary. I used the steps to engage my daughter, who was four at the time, around the ownership of the new word “nonconformity.” She had heard it in the “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” Christmas special. I videotaped part of our conversation.
Strategies work. Fat, buttery, glutinous strategies that enhance and support reading at higher levels and writing with salubrious words of power.
By the way, Robert Pirosh got the job. He got three offers based only on his letter. College and career readiness isn’t a new thing we should start considering. It is the very real act of preparing kids for the world they are entering. Better vocabulary instruction is a prodigious first step.
*Note: the quantitative lexile measure of this blog post is 1210L.
Mike Fisher (@fisher1000) has more than a decade of classroom and professional-development experience. He is a full-time educational consultant and instructional coach and works primarily with school districts to integrate the Common Core State Standards, make data-informed instructional decisions, sustain their curriculum mapping initiatives and integrate instructional technology. Learn more at The Digigogy Collaborative or on his blog.