Discovering Language to Help Us Write

Over the last few months, I’ve been sharing different kinds of language field guide entries that help students explore words and make discoveries about language. (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. Then, I shared about a way we can use field guides and word-exploration to invite students’ own language into our classrooms.) Each field guide entry type I’ve shared has a connection to student writing, which is part of why field guides are such an incredible classroom tool — they intentionally bridge the separate worlds of reading and writing in our classrooms.

But today’s field guide entry is ALL ABOUT writing.

For now, I’m calling this a word association field guide. Here’s how it goes:

  1. In the early days of a writing unit (Ideally after some planning / researching but before students have gotten deep into drafting), as students to very, very quickly (like, in 30 seconds) write down 5-10 words they think of when they think about their topic for this piece of writing.

(For instance, if they are writing personal essays, they are each trying to quickly come up with 5-10 words that pop to mind when they think about the scene their essay is describing. If they are writing an op-ed, they are thinking about 5-10 words that pop to mind about their opinion or 5-10 words that pop to mind when they think about the text they are analyzing. You get it.)

I am intentionally vague about these directions. If students ask for more specific directions, I just reiterate, “It’s whatever comes to mind when you think about this topic you’re writing about.” And that’s also why a very, very slim time frame is important. We don’t want them to have too much time to overthink.

2. Spend some time exploring each word. Because they are dealing with multiple words at once, they naturally won’t have as much detail as they might about a single word. For this, I tell them the most important features to focus on are multiple definitions (in their own words. Always.), emotional connotation/mood of the word (as determined from looking at professional sentences that use this word), and close synonyms (and then, of course, the difference between those synonyms). After they’ve found these pieces of information about each word, they should spend remaining time making other discoveries they find interestings.

3. Ask writers to reflect. To do this, I give students the following questions:

4. Send students into their drafts to make changes or just continue to work based on their new discoveries.

A Look at My Students’ Field Guides + Writing

My students tried this recently at the very beginning of a unit of study on narrative scenes — single scenes of a larger story. We had done some planning + quick flash drafting to get the bones of an idea on the page. Then, we spent 10 minutes at the beginning of class for a week working on this field guide entry as a warm up.

(After the warm up, we were moving forward with mini-lessons, writing, and conferring. However, you could choose to have students complete this entry all at once — in just one class period!)

After our week of field guide work, I asked students for some feedback in a Google Form. Did it help? And, if so, how?

So, what happened? How did exploring these freely-associated words help the piece of writing they were working on? Let’s start with Stella:

In her reflection, Stella reports, “This helped my find my emotions about the scene, which helped change my tone from less serious to more like the way a three-year old would describe it.” Like Stella, many students reported that this work helped them see the emotions beneath the story in a clearer way. It prompted them to notice that while they felt emotions in the midst of the scene they are describing, they hadn’t done much to articulate those emotions to the reader yet.

This isn’t only helpful when we’re talking about emotions in narratives, though. Often when writing persuasive or argumentative/analytical writing, student writers are unaware of the tone they are conveying or that they should be consciously choosing their tone at all. This kind of field guide entry can help students zoom in and focus on that.

Thomas’ field guide entry reveals another trend I saw in students’ work with word association field guide entries: it revealed something important that he left out.

Thomas says, “This helped me realize that there is a lot more that is happening in my scene then just the basketball game.” Looking at his field guide work and then looking back at his draft, Thomas realized he hadn’t described the setting, which is important to his scene. Isolating certain terms ultimately helped Thomas reflect on what he had prioritized (the description of the game) and what he had ignored. It led him to go back and make sure that he mentioned the city (Minneapolis) and spend a paragraph laying out the setting: a stadium packed with energized fans.

Let’s check out one more. Mackenzie also demonstrates a trend in word association field guides — they helped students see what they might be misrepresenting.

Mackenzie reflected, “It made me realize what the vibe of my scene was. It made me think that I made it a little more intense and stressful and dramatic than the actual experience was.”

Another bonus was that many students reported that this activity slowed them down + shifted their focus. In the midst of beginning to draft and shape their ideas, they hadn’t even considered the language that would help them do that. By the end of the week, students had a new word-level focus that helped them revise and match their language with their writing intentions.

Interested in Using Language Field Guides to Help YOUR Students Dig Deeper Into Words?

Let’s be honest: It’s the end of the year. We need a break. All of us. Desperately.

But maybe you’re starting to think, “Yeah, this could be a really great way to teach vocabulary in my classes next year…I might want to try this.”

I’m planning some support for you!

We’ve already had one webinar called Language Field Guide Basics that takes participants through choice word field guides and how they can improve your students’ vocabulary. You can purchase the recording here.This will get you and your students started with the very most basic kind of language field guide work.

But starting in August, we’ll also be releasing 4 on-demand sessions to deepen this work:

  • Field Guide Basics II — studying roots and word parts through language field guides
  • Teaching Students to be Curious About Words + How to Research Them
  • Teaching Word Connection + Extending Field Guide Work Past the Notebook
  • Creating Your Own Field Guide Entries to Meet Your Teaching Intentions

These will be released on-demand over the course of the first few months of school and available for purchase individually or in a bundle (think of it as a virtual PLC). Those who purchase the bundle will also have access to personalized support from me!

Be on the lookout for registration opening later this summer!

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