I think my mother, Jean, always envisioned herself as a writer. She wrote for her high school newspaper, “The Patriot,” and was the star editor in ’45. She understood the significance of a strong vocabulary and how words could persuade, shape or change attitudes, emotions and values.
However, the death of her father and the necessity of work did not allow my mom to pursue her hope of a writing career. Instead, she became a highly professional and extremely proficient secretary at Allis Chalmers. Years later she took that same dedication and became a reliable, skilled waitress. Ultimately, she met and married my Dad, a Milwaukee cop. Heck, I remember several holidays where she made more money in tips than my dad made while walking his beat as a street cop!
My mom was the “Lady Bountiful” (couldn’t resist the Kate Chopin reference!) of our neighborhood; the neighbor kids would hang out at our house, not to play with me, but to be with my mom. She would talk with them, listen to them and bake for them.
There was one thing my mom always insisted on when talking to children; one must use the same intensity of vocabulary that adults use in conversation. In other words, if the conversation calls for “plethora,” then use it! Don’t substitute “a lot” because you think the child doesn’t understand the word. My mom never talked down to children and always assumed they knew the words she was using. She prided herself on my brother and I having a remarkably strong vocabulary due to her tutelage.
I remember many, many summers ago when one of the neighbor kids, Brenda, who couldn’t have been more than eight or nine years old at the time, had a tendency to pepper her sentences with throw-away words like “hey,” “ain’t,” and those awkward speech-fillers resembling uncertainty such as, “you know” and “um.” My mom, of course, would have none of that. She began a “word-of-the-day” program with Brenda. First, my mother would use the new word correctly in a sentence; next, Brenda looked up the word in a dictionary; then, Brenda read the definition several times out loud finally creating a sentence of her own to use in conversation with my mother. The next day, my mom would begin the “program” all over again with a new word, but Brenda was expected to continue using the prior word in her conversation . . . scaffolding the vocabulary to continue making meaning!
Here’s the interesting part: Brenda kept coming over and kept hanging out with my mom. The fact that Brenda didn’t know the words never fazed her; my mom didn’t make her feel stupid or ignorant. Rather, Brenda enjoyed having someone to spend time with and enjoyed having someone help her sound “smart.” By the end of the summer, Brenda’s vocabulary had grown to the point where she often had to explain the definitions of some of the words she used to her own mother!
The Marzanno Research website focusing on vocabulary (http://www.marzanoresearch.com/vocabulary) states, “The importance of direct vocabulary instruction cannot be overstated. Vocabulary provides essential background knowledge and is linked to academic achievement. Effective teachers select terms for direct instruction, use a research-based process to teach those terms, and assess and track students’ progress with new terms. “
How’s that for a woman without a teaching certificate or ever having heard of what’s considered best practice in vocabulary instruction?
We know good vocabulary instruction is not difficult, but is time-consuming. Every effort has to be made by every teacher to teach a comprehensive research-based vocabulary program that is taught every day – not as an afterthought and not as flavor-of-the-month district initiative. We teach vocabulary because we value our students’ ability to grow their own hopes that someday they will be whatever they want to be – a writer, or a teacher or a wise friend!