Sunday, 17 March 2013

Words, words, words

I love that bit in ‘Hamlet’ where Polonious asks Hamlet what he is reading. Hamlet replies, “words, words, words”. It has recently come to my attention the value of words in other subjects in secondary schools. Initially, I was a bit sceptical about the emphasis on words in departments. People, I originally thought, we barking up the wrong tree with their ‘key words’ and ‘spelling lists’. I was adamant that it was grammar. Grammar was the secret weapon they needed to develop literacy in a lesson.  In truth, it is both words and grammar, and a whole lot of other stuff. But, words play a huge part in the learning.

A colleague of mine has had an epiphany with words as an art teacher. Art is a practical subject and therefore has very little writing, but my colleague has found ways of using words to develop her teaching. She has created a word wall, but this word wall is amazing in what it does. It gives students the words to talk about art. It gives them the language of an artist. It gives them the tools to articulate their ideas in such a way that has transformed their understanding, and in time I am sure we will see the benefits in class. It probably contains lots of obscure words and technical terms? It doesn’t. One part is like a large Dulux chart with lots of names for different colours. Each colour is grouped according to the shade of colour they are. Another part of this display focuses on textures, lines, shapes and other aspects of art.

I am no expert on art. In fact, my only experience of art I can recall in school was when I painted a self-portrait. For ages, I struggled to get the colour right for my skin. It took me so long that each lesson I’d only paint a small section of my face. The end result was that I looked like I had a strange skin disease. To make things worse, my friend then laughed at it and, in a moment of artistic anger, I destroyed the whole thing with some red paint.  My teacher then appeared and told me off.  She sighed and remarked that a typical ruffian would take this lovely opportunity to make a monster.

Anyway, I know that if I go into my colleague’s classroom, I can articulate my ideas about art in a much better way. I could describe a painting in a far more appropriate way. No longer can I just say that the painter has painted a blue vase. I could say it is a cobalt blue vase. That little difference shows skill and understanding.

For this week’s blog, I am going to look at words and how I refer to them in lessons.

Change one word in a sentence and ask students to decide which sentence is better and why.

It was a cold, dark night.

I was a dangerous, dark night.

Furthermore, I give students a list of alternatives a writer could have chosen for a word. The students then discuss why the writer didn’t choose any of the other possibilities.

I have done this recently with ‘Great Expectations’:

I came into Smithfield, and the shameful place, being all asmear with filth and fat and blood and foam, seemed to stick to me. So I rubbed it off with all possible speed by turning into a street where I saw the great black dome of St. Paul's  bulging at me from behind a grim stone building which a bystander said was Newgate Prison. Following the wall of the jail, I found the roadway covered with straw to deaden the noise of passing vehicles, and from this, and from the quantity of people standing about, smelling strongly of spirits and beer, I inferred that the trials were on.

Then, pairs are given a sheet with the following list on it. They explore the choice made by the writer.

Bulging /Lumping / Projecting / Swelling /Sticking out / Expanding

Great /Colossal / Huge /Large /Immense/Bulky

Shameful /Wicked / Disgraceful / Vile /Indecent /Mean

Word lists
The internet is brilliant. Type in some of the following phrases ‘beautiful words’, ‘adjectives to describe characters’ and ‘adverbs’ and you will have an instant resource. I found a list of adjectives to describe a character’s personality. That list has been laminated and is now a brilliant starter for a lesson: students find adjectives to describe a key character in a book we are studying.

Top 5 words
I love doing this. To put it simply, you write one to five on the board. Students are given a text and asked to find the most effective (change this to whatever words you are looking for – emotive / informal / descriptive) words. Then, set the timer for three minutes. They have to suggest words to go on the top 5.  These are the rules:

·         Words can only be replaced by a better word.

·         You cannot use a word that has already been replaced on the list.

·         The teacher decides if the word is better than the one being replaced.

·         Students must give a reason why their word is better than the other one.

After the three minutes, the students with words in the top 5 get prizes or some reward. The
discussions are brilliant and it is incredibly funny and tactical. Students really pour over the book
when they find their word knocked off the list. They become even more determined.

You end up with a lot of discussion on the writer’s choice of words without ever having to wait for a

Dictionary Wars
This is simple. Turn the tables on their side and then lob dictionaries across the classroom. You score a point if you hit someone. I joke. No, this sounds worse than it is. Get students into pairs and give each pair a dictionary. Reveal a word on the board. The pair that finds the word and writes it down first in their exercise book is the winner. It is a fabulous energiser as students compete to find a word first. It can also be a great way to introduce ‘tractors’ in a text we read later in a lesson. As soon as they find the word, they have to say the definition as well. To make it even more challenging, I might get them to say the word in a sentence.

To make it even harder still, I say the word they have to find rather than show the word. That was a great suggestion from a TA and it worked really well.

Word table
I have found this table valuable when analysing poetry and non-fiction texts. Students are looking for patterns in the types of words used and the table helps them to recognise the patterns. Unfortunately, I have lost my original, but here is a rough approximate:


Thanks for reading. I am now going off to read a bit now. "What are you reading?" I hear you say. Words. Words. Words.  


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