Discovering Students’ OWN Language through Field Guides

This semester, I’m sharing how my students create language field guides to intentionally and systematically explore words in their reading, their writing, and their lives, not just memorize parts of speech and definitions. My first installment shared the basics of choice word field guides, the easiest and most fundamental way we explore words. My second post talked about exploring significant words in a text + in our own writing.

While it’s important for readers and writers to carefully study and explore the words they read and the words they use in their writing, it’s equally important (dare I say MORE important?!) for them to carefully study and explore the language they use in their real lives. Their outside-of-school language. Their inside-their-“family” language.

Inviting students’ outside-of-school language into English class is powerful and democratizing in so many ways. It values first languages, slang, and quirky inside jokes alongside words that are found in traditional dictionaries. It tells students, “The way you speak and text and write outside of this space is just as valuable as every other kind of language we use.” And, thus, YOU are valuable.

There are many ways we can use the tool of field guides to do this, but I want to share one today: “family” words/phrases field guide entries.

How to Study “Family” Words + Phrases

We’ve spent a year (two years, if you’re in my 8th grade classes!) exploring words in our language field guides. We’ve formed a pretty good rhythm, and students have begun to research and think about words in increasingly complex, nuanced ways. But that same method doesn’t work when we can’t use our typical tools (dictionaries, thesauruses, Google News + Ngram, etc.). We needed to form a new method for exploration.

  1. Brainstorming

We began with a little talking + brainstorming together. I asked students to imagine someone was making a TV show about their family. (And, please note, because “family” isn’t the most positive concept for every student, we spent time intentionally defining family in the broadest sense. Sure, it could be the people who live in your house, but it could also be your extended family, your friends-who-feel-like-family, your team, etc.) What words or phrases would definitely make it to the script because they are heard constantly within your group?

These words and phrases could be of different sorts. For instance, one of my students has an invented word her family uses a lot: flarpnut. A flarpnut is a name for something that doesn’t have any other name. It’s synonymous with “thingymajig” or “whatchamacallit”.

But it doesn’t have to be something completely made up. In my family, one person always ends the phone call with, “Okay, well, I’m going to let you go…”. I think this might be a Southern thing. It sounds polite but ends the conversation by putting it on the other person’s perceived (or just completely made up) need to go do something else. OR it might be a word or phrase in a different language that’s used at home but never in school.

We spent five minutes or so brainstorming + sharing, generating ideas. I sent students home that day with instructions to listen to their “family” units to get additional ideas.

2. Redefining How We Explore Words

Next, we needed some new questions to ask of this different type of language. When we explore our out-of-school native tongue, research becomes something else entirely.

Sure, I could have just given them a list of questions rather than spend the time to have them develop questions themselves, but this is a powerful part of the process. Questions are thinking, and they are how we access students’ curiosity.

We needed some new research tools, too. In some cases, dictionaries would work. In other cases, we needed to turn to some previously “off limits” tools like Google, Wikipedia, and (gasp) Urban Dictionary. In still other cases, the internet was no help whatsoever, and research looked more like ethnography, talking to and observing those who use that language in their natural environment.

And then we spent some time thinking about discovery itself. No matter what word we explore in our field guide — even something completely ordinary and everyday — our goal is discovery. What can we discover about this word that makes us say, “Huh!”?

So, when we are exploring words and phrases that are deeply ingrained in our communities, our discoveries will probably also look a bit different than when we study other words. We talked and determined that we might discover that our word/phrase means something else, too. We might discover its true origins. We might discover what other members of our “family” think about when they hear it. We might discover a word we use is way cooler than we ever knew or more offensive than we originally thought. We might discover we want to put it on a t-shirt or erase it from our vocabulary.

How to Make a “Family” Words Field Guide

  1. Who is your family? Is it the people you live with? Is it your extended family? Is it a group of friends who are like family? Is it a different group you are committed to — like a soccer team, a dance group, the friends in your neighborhood?
  2. What words or phrases are special to this “family” — ones you’ve made up or ones you just say a lot to one another? Choose one.
  3. Explore this word by using the resources we thought of in class — the Internet, of course, but also those people in your family. What can they tell you about what it means, its origin, how its used in your family today, etc.?
  4. Share your findings in your field guide.

A Gallery of Student Examples

Here are a few my students made. (This year, our field guides are in Jamboard because Pandemic School.)

When they were finished, each student pulled up his/her field guide on his/her computer screen. We split the class in half: one half “hosted” and told the story of their word while the other have “visited” their peers. Then we switched. One student even said, “I think maybe my family is actually kind of cool!”

Tying it into Writing

Student’s language quirks shouldn’t only live in their field guides or at their kitchen tables. Encourage your students to think about how they might use the language they studied in their writing?

Pop culture writers I love from The Ringer, Vox, and even NPR use slange all the time. A quick tour of the Twitter feed @NYT_First_Said will show you writers for The New York TImes who routinely invent new words to communicate their ideas. Characters, in fiction and in personal essays, might actually speak these words or phrases.

Invite students to consider in what kind of writing could they envision including this word?

Why It’s Worth It

  • This is a wonderful way to build classroom community around words, though I’m glad we did it later in the year rather than as a getting-to-know-you. Since trust had already been established, students were willing to openly share about their communities outside of school.
  • This also gets community members involved in your classroom. One of the most interesting parts of this field guide entry was that so much of the research had to be obtained through interviewing people! And those people — and their words — became a part of our classroom.
  • Inviting students’ outside lives into the classroom values students’ identity and who they are when they are not English students. You can also do this with a slang word field guide. Or a code-switching field guide (how I say something at school vs. how I say the same thing outside of school).

Have you tried word-exploring or language field guides yet? What happened? What other ways could we invite students’ own language into our classroom through the field guide tool? Please leave a comment!

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