I often remind my students that school is a word game. I specifically do this in a few situations:
- When a student comes to me and reports that they “have a low reading level” based on an assessment like the SRI, I sit them down and share how these tests are essentially tests of vocabulary. (Before this, I confirm that they can decode fluently. Decoding in English is not a vocabulary issue.) The one action step I want them to take moving forward, I say, is when they encounter a text and feel overwhelmed by the words they don't know, they need to switch gears and just focus on learning a few words from the text. Specifically, look up what unknown words mean, look at sample sentences with the words in them, and then write them down some place in their spiral notebook where they can keep track of words they learn over time. I tell them not to stress about this process, and that just by doing this — putting a little extra thought into unknown words — they will slowly, over time see their vocabulary growing.
- When my students and I encounter a novel word in a video or article or conversation, I'll often say, “Oh, that's a cool word. Let's write that one down. Remember: school is a word game. We're trying to be rich in words.”
- Sometimes for our warm-up, I'll have the students write down and define a handful of words that I've encountered lately or that I've noticed some of them are confused about.
For these reasons and more, I was pumped when our colleague Continuing Ed sent along this three-minute video from Nature:
(Not seeing a video? Click here.)
Don't have three minutes? The gist is this: knowledge of words, like knowledge in general, isn't stored in a single spot in the brain. Words are stored all over. When mapped to the mind using the method in the Nature video, the brain looks like a constellation.
It reminds me of this old line I come back to often when talking to folks about knowledge-building in the classroom:
Our understanding of the role of long-term memory in human cognition has altered dramatically over the last few decades. It is no longer seen as a passive repository of discrete, isolated fragments of information that permit us to repeat what we have learned. Nor is it seen only as a component of human cognitive architecture that has merely peripheral influence on complex cognitive processes such as thinking and problem solving. Rather, long-term memory is now viewed as the central, dominant structure of human cognition. Everything we see, hear, and think about is critically dependent on and influenced by our long-term memory.Kirschner et al., p. 76, right column (link)
So, very practically, do this if you want to empower young people and help cultivate in them stronger motivation: teach words! Those within your discipline, those outside of it; for fun, for seriousness, for the love of the game. And remind them: school is a word game.
In some ways, love and life are, too.
Tracy Franklin says
Dave, thank you, thank you for once again giving me a sweet, simple slogan to use with my English learners – “School is a word game”. Vocabulary is vital to all of us, but particularly to my English Language learners. They will tell you I remind them WHY we are learning vocabulary, reviewing it, acting it out, playing games with it ad nauseam! Now I have a slogan for it! You can bet the “School is a word game” sign is going up in my room next to the “These 5 Things” poster.
Dave Stuart Jr. says
Hi my friend! I am grateful for that corner of your classroom where we collaborate via these posters and sayings 🙂 And: grateful for you!