The Match That Starts the Fire

by Alexandra Cavallo

Photo of a notebook page with a word circled and the comment "Really?" written in purple

Duvantee, a junior and one of the brightest in his class, asked me to look over his college essay. I found that many of his sentences didn’t make sense due to word choice. He told me he had used the online thesaurus. When I asked what he meant by referring to his mother as his “primum mobile” he replied, “she’s like the match that starts the fire.” “Write that,” I said.

Students often do what Duvantee did, substituting obscure or fancy words for seemingly simple or boring ones. In doing so, they sacrifice their voice as well as meaning.  I fear that as teachers, we encourage this pattern of inauthentic writing by perpetuating the myth that colleges want to see these big words in students’ essays and that the words will always improve their writing.  If students feel like they have to prove their intelligence to their teachers or a college admissions board every time they sit down to write something, it’s only natural that they will feel pressured to use accessible tools like the online thesaurus to pad their writing with words they feel are more “academic.” With such a strong emphasis on SAT words and college essays, we have trained our students to think their natural voices aren’t good enough for academic writing.

Encouraging Authenticity

Stephen King suggests that dressing up vocabulary is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes. The pet ends up being uncomfortable and confused, as this attire is not natural to them. The same line of reasoning applies to inauthentic student writing. The result is that the student is no longer in touch with the original meaning or intention; their voice is lost.

In their work, I’ll Speak in Proper Slang, Godley, Carpenter, and Werner cite current research “that demonstrates that language ideologies influence literacy instruction in significant ways by framing particular uses of language as acceptable or unacceptable and by positioning particular students as more- or less-skilled language users” (Bloome, Katz, & Champion, 2003; Pomerantz, 2002). These ideologies are damaging. By creating a space that encourages students to use their own familiar words to develop their own ideas and experiences in writing, we can facilitate new language ideologies in our classrooms–ones that offer an open and understanding ear to our students.   

Writer’s notebooks may be a good way to help students use their own words to describe their own experiences. In Encouraging Student Voice in Academic Writing, Rebecca Gemmell discusses the implementation of writer’s notebooks in her classroom after finding that the University of California’s “system measures students’ readiness for college-level writing by asking them to express their opinion and that personal experience could be a major source of evidence” (65). Writer’s notebooks allowed her students to use their own language to write about topics important to them.

What we can do

  • Encourage students to look up unfamiliar words they come across in their reading. This is how they will expand their vocabularies. For example, I had a teacher who taught the class to read using the “three highlighter method,” in which a green highlight indicated a vocabulary question or an unknown reference made by the author. Students made a note of the definition or reference in the margin. The two other colors were used for questions about the piece and to note something important or interesting. This practice could be encouraged by asking students what certain words mean or what the author is referencing in specific areas of the texts throughout the class. Readers can get used to identifying these unknown words and references in preparation for class discussion.  Parents might also consider asking kids to highlight vocabulary words as they read together.   When readers are purposeful about learning new words, they find more ways to implement them in speech, eventually bringing new words into their natural vocabulary.
  • Ask students to make an ongoing list of the words they like from their readings, and encourage students to work with those words, using them in class discussions, in their writing, and on their own. This way, they are making a decision to incorporate these words into their speech and writing.  Spelling city provides a way for students to create their own word lists in an online environment. The site allows teachers access to the words our students are working with and makes it easy to keep track of word lists. Students can engage with their new vocab words by making use of the spelling tests and games on the site.
  • Use “sophisticated,” subject-appropriate language with your students. Never dumb down your speech for them. If you use a difficult word, define it for them and continue to use it. Students will learn from this and start to use it themselves!  In The Vocabulary-Rich Classroom: Modeling Sophisticated Word Use to Promote Word Consciousness and Vocabulary Growth, Holly Lane and Stephanie Allen share examples of this modeling. In one example, a fourth-grade teacher begins the year by having her students greet the person sitting next to them using a positive adjective such as, “nice” and “talented.” To encourage her students to use more original and interesting vocabulary to describe their classmates, Ms. Riva took over the greeting activity one morning, using word like “affable” and “jovial” to describe her students. They were eager to look up the words used to describe them, and by the end of the year students were using these words with ease in their writing and speech.

I’d like to do away with the notion that formal writing shouldn’t read like everyday speech; this mindset is holding our students back. I don’t want my students to feel like they have to take on some voice existing outside of themselves—a “scholarly” voice that is perhaps more well spoken than they are—one that recognizes “primum mobile” as a reference to Dante or to classical, medieval and renaissance astronomy in order to successfully write an academic piece. With reading, vocabulary will come. A good teacher’s students will learn new vocab subconsciously. We should encourage our students to use language they are intimately familiar with, so as not to embarrass ourselves, our students, and Mr. King.

Alexandra Cavallo student teaches English at Northern Highlands Regional High School in Allendale, NJ. She has assisted and taught English/writing in 4th, 10th, 11th, and 12th grade classrooms in Linden, Spotswood, Franklin, and New Brunswick, NJ. She is also working on her Master’s degree in English Education.


2 thoughts on “The Match That Starts the Fire

  1. I really appreciate the shout out for helping students to cultivate their own voices as writers and move away from the thesaurus method of composing and revising! I want to also add that writing does sound different than speech. And while I also like to use sophisticated vocabulary in class and then define it within my sentence, learning vocabulary “subconsciously” may not work for all students, including many multilingual students–thus having some vocabulary building exercises with self-directed vocabulary study around online tools is also essential for developing writers.

  2. Pingback: The Match That Starts the Fire - Literacy & NCTE

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