I’m going back over Stephen King’s On Writing, which I highly recommend not only to aspiring writers but to English educators. In particular I’m thinking about the toolbox King talked about. Vocabulary, words, are an integral part of that toolbox, probably the most important part. I also can’t help but think how many of my students don’t have the vocabulary they should for the level they are at, and they have come to where they are without learning how to expand their own vocabulary, and how to use what they do know effectively.
During the last semester I had an assignment about why essays are important to write, and how they should be graded. It was an experiment that bore some very interesting fruit, including a student who advocated looking up more advanced words in a thesaurus in order to impress the teacher.
I felt my guts seize up even as my brain flashed to King’s toolbox. This was exactly the wrong approach to take. The nuances of meaning don’t come through in such a casual look at a thesaurus, and end up making the writer sound less intelligent instead of more.
But this attitude told me something, as well as reading some articles about teaching and the crime scene interactive fiction project I ran: students don’t have the tools necessary to expand their vocabulary in the right way. It should be something of an osmotic process where people read, ponder what they’ve read, define new words from context, and assimilate them into a vocabulary.
My students rarely read, and when they do the process is more akin to skimming than an immersive experience. Consequently, when confronted with unfamiliar words, they are skipped over instead of processed. They have no use for looking up words be it in a physical dictionary, online dictionary, or even using Google to define the word.So I’ve been brainstorming up a new type of assignment that would require my students to use dictionaries. I want them to become familiar with the process, to become comfortable and practiced with looking up words. They need to learn how to sound out words and properly look them up. They need to become aware that the word threw is the past tense of throw, and not a spelling for through.