Discovering Language: Field Guide Entries that Explore the Language That Means the Most

Here’s my first post in this series that will give you some background on Language Field Guides as well the foundation of choice word field guide entries.

Language field guides are a place where readers + writers make discoveries about the language they explore.

It’s how I approach vocabulary instruction in a way that’s meaningful, manageable, meets the intentions of my instruction, and upholds what I value in my classroom: student choice, voice, inquiry, and agency. They also beautifully bridge our worlds of reading and writing.

Choice word field guides are a go-to. A routine part of our classroom lives, a rhythm we return to again and again. In many ways, they form the foundation for our study of language because they teach students how to explore words and how to make sense of what they find.

And from that foundation, we can build.

When you start using language field guides in your class, making the shift from memorization to exploration, you’ll quickly find out just how versatile they are.

Teaching Students to Pay Attention to Language That’s Loaded with Meaning

Whether in my 12th grade IB classes or my 7th grade unleveled classes, I’ve found universally that students have very little practice drilling down to the word level to make or create meaning. Sure, they know that writers choose words, but probably because we’re all so concerned with the big picture (the theme of a text, the broad strokes of characterization, having a thesis that’s supported in their own writing) that we don’t often find the time to teach students how to think about the smaller choices writers make that merge to have a big effect.

This is where I begin building. Once my students have had some practice with free choice field guide entries, the next way I begin to use this tool in my classroom is to think about significant words — the most important language choices in both the writing they read and the writing they create themselves.

Most Important Word Entries

As always, we begin with reading because the way we read dictates the way we write.

With a text the class is reading

  1. Choose a passage of a longer text the class is studying (or a whole article).
  2. Ask students to choose the most important word or words (you pick the number!) in the text.
  3. Invite students to explore the words they’ve selected with an emphasis on discovery. What can you find out about this word that you didn’t know before or that causes you to think about it in a new and different way?
  4. After students explore each word individually, ask them to pull those three words together in a concept circle. What concept in the text does your study of these words together help illuminate? Change? Evolve? Develop? In other words, how do they go together and what is your new understanding?

Let’s look at an example together:

My students are studying Macbeth, and I wanted them to get close to the language in Macbeth’s dagger soliloquy as they wondered if Macbeth is evil or experiencing a mental health crisis.

I asked students to choose three words that they felt were the most important, most significant in this speech — three words on which the soliloquy hinges. Just like in choice word field guides, I wanted to ensure that students had agency here to determine what they think is important and worthy of their study. Here, Isabelle choice “dagger”, “palpable”, and “done”.

Just like a choice word field guide, she records parts of speech, definitions in her own words, phrases and bits of text that use that word, sketches and images that help her understand more deeply.

You’ll notice that Isabelle isn’t just copying down what she reads in the dictionary — she’s recording what’s interesting to her and underlining (in red) the big ah has she’s experiencing. It’s not about defining “dagger”, it’s about discovering what Shakespeare’s choice of a dagger specifically can tell her about Macbeth.

Then, she pulls it together in a concept circle. The revelation that a dagger is a back-up battlefield weapon used primarily for self-defense suggested to her that Macbeth is trying to protect something by murdering Duncan — protecting the prophecy he was given, protecting his dream of being king. If he views this murder as self-defense, he can also justify it more easily, which is what he’s ultimately trying to do in this speech. She discovered that “palpable” has a figurative, emotional meaning when a feeling becomes simply too much, which we see here with Macbeth, suggesting he’s overwhelmed by this decision. Finally, (and maybe most interestingly), “done” can also mean doomed. So when Macbeth says “I go and it is done”, he’s referring to the murder but also to the damnation of his soul.

With students’ own writing…

It’s easier to take a critical look at your own writing when you’ve had practice examining someone else’s first. If students can explore and reflect on the most important words in Macbeth (or their independent reading, or a mentor text you’ve been studying, or a passage from The Great Gatsby), then they can do the same in their own work.

  1. Direct students to look at a piece of their own writing.

(This could be a piece that is still in progress of being drafted, a piece that is nearly finished, or a piece they’ve written in the past.)

2. Ask them to re-read their piece and choose their own three most important, significant words — the words on which their piece hinges.

3. Invite students to explore these words, with a particular focus on making new discoveries and new connections about these three words.

4. Then, pull the three words together in a concept circle: how do these three words go together? What do the discoveries about the three words reveal about the ideas presented in their piece? Do these discoveries lead the writer to want to add any new ideas to their writing? Do these words accurately reflect the writer’s intentions? Do tweaks need to be made to make a different word more significant in the piece?

Let’s look at another example:

Isabelle turned her attention to the piece of free-choice analysis we had nearly completed (hers, an analysis of Louis Tomlinson’s “Defenseless”). Through this exploration, she made a few important discoveries for her essay:

  • These three words did a good job of summing up the big ideas she wanted to communicate about this song.
  • “Complicated” was a word she struggled to articulate as she drafted, but it turned out to be incredibly appropriate.
  • Since she discovered that “complicated” has to do with interconnectedness, she was able to articulate a new, more nuanced idea about the song: it doesn’t just demonstrate vulnerability AND safety, it’s more interconnected than that. Because Tomlinson is vulnerable, the listener feels safe. One depends on the other.

Now, this may go a few ways:

  • A student may struggle to find three significant words and/or choose three words that really aren’t significant.

This is okay! This is information, too, that will help writers move forward and think more intentionally about their word choice. If a student falls into this category, they might want to think about “What words do I not have yet that SHOULD be in this list of three? What words can I think of that sum up the big ideas I’m trying to communicate?”

  • A student might do a nice job exploring three important words from their piece, but come to no new epiphanies about their piece.

This is okay, too! Students benefit from even asking themselves the question, “What are the most significant words in my piece? Which words provide the backbone of my piece?” Just reflecting about word choice at this level builds stronger, more intentional writers. They also benefit from the practice of exploring words to make discoveries and building connections between words.

Why is this worth doing?

  • Most Important Word entries strengthens critical reading skills.

This type of field guide entry requires close, careful reading. Students not only dig into texts at the world level, but they also build connections between words and thus ideas throughout the passage. This is the kind of reading we hope students are doing on their own. And doing it through a field guide entry gives them a frame for that thinking.

  • Most Important Word entries put a focus on discovery.

“What did you discover about this word?” is the question I ask every time I confer with students about field guides. But let’s be honest, it takes work and practice and reinforcement to move students past copying down dictionary definitions. Often, the words students consider to be most-important in a text are fairly common, and this nudges students to take their exploration to the next level — making new discoveries and building new connections.

  • Most Important Word entires shine a new light on student writing.

When students create these entries about both the texts they read and those they write, that connection between the world of writing and the world of creating becomes stronger. Students see that they are making choices about words the same way professional writers are, and that those choices have great significance and meaning.

It also gives students time and space to think about their writing on a micro-level. The vast majority of our writing instruction happens in the macro — the big ideas, the over-arching structure. In the midst of trying to juggle the writing work of a large essay, it’s hard for students to think methodically about individual word choices. Here, they can. And it might even lead them to new ideas they can use to enhance their writing.

It’s a rare tool that I can use fluidly in both reading and writing workshop, but Language Field Guides allow me to do that. On April 14, I’m hosting a 1-hour webinar to give you the tools you’ll need to introduce field guide work to your students and get them started. You’ll get to try some field guide work for yourself, see lots of student samples, + the instructions I give to students.

Click here for more details + to register!

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