And indeed, I heard colleagues down the hall – great teachers in many ways – saying “Good job” over and over again, writing learning targets like, “I can share my ideas with a friend”. Worst of all, that dullest of all sentence starters, “I think…”.
Simultaneously, I was told that students should be engaging in “rich discourse” to “develop their oral language”.
How were they supposed to “develop oral language” or engage in “rich discourse” if we only used the Tier 1 words they were already used to hearing?
I began playing with high-level vocabulary and syntax in my day-to-day classroom management, more or less as an experiment, to see how much my young students would absorb – particularly because as a dual language class, we would be doing it in both English and Spanish.
I began asking students to “proceed to their tables” rather than “going”, and to “align their papers with precision” rather than “putting them in a pile”. Instead of “giving Miguel more room”, Brianna needed to “ensure that Miguel has adequate space to sit”. I began prompting students to start sentences like, “I would argue,” “Furthermore” (to build on a classmate’s point), or, my favorite, “In my humble opinion….” Sometimes I would unpack the word or phrase (particularly when it was being offered as a sentence starter), but most of the time I would just model the language in my own speech, what vocabulary expert Isabel Beck calls “seeding vocabulary”.
I thought it would take some time for them to begin using the words on their own, but many students seemed to absorb the words almost immediately – and take great satisfaction in doing so. Speaking in this way took no additional instructional time, yet my students’ language began to shift.
Towards the end of the school day, Isaac began proclaiming, “This classroom looks absolutely abysmal!” Table partners would urge each other, “We have to collaborate efficiently so we finish our learning target!” And absolutely everyone took to reminding colleagues on the rug, “You… are… encroaching… on… my… space!”
Those who began integrating the new words into their working vocabulary more quickly became little ambassadors, ‘seeding’ rich language among their classmates.
Listening to my students play with words has been a reminder of the fallacy of the term “student-friendly”. There is nothing “friendly” about using boring, everyday words to speak with students. In fact, it deprives our students of a lot of fun.
“Big words” – as the uninitiated might call them – are among the most intriguing and desirable things a young child can learn. I still remember my father teaching me the words indefatigable and loquacious as a child, and I used them every chance I got. (Can you guess what he was using those words to describe?) My fourth grade teacher was among my favorites, and he too had the wonderful habit of introducing sophisticated words like “exemplary” and “superlative” for us to play with.
My students appear to feel the same way.
The greatest challenge in this practice has been finding multiple contexts in which to utilize the vocabulary, so that students understand the full breadth of their meaning – an element of the practice that I consider very much a work in progress. But sometimes our classwork has done this work for me. It has been a pleasure for my young students to see so many of our favorite words appear in high level read alouds, and to be able to apply our classroom words to academic contexts. When we began studying the Lenape and the Dutch in our exploration of NYC history, the word “encroach” became more important than ever as we recognized that the Dutch were “encroaching” on Lenape “territory”.
As proud emergent bilinguals, our class has benefited doubly from experimentation with cognates in both Spanish and English. Many of these higher-level words are Latinate, so they often provide useful matches across languages. Our comfort with the Spanish “tierra” made “territory” quite accessible. Our use of the term “discuss” in English led to an important discussion between that word and its Spanish mate, “discutir”, which has a different valence, closer to the English “argue”.
Even the absence of a cognate has helped us bring new words into our classroom vocabulary. Our frequent use of the English word “encroach” brought us the Spanish “infringir”, which in turn brought us the English “infringe”. It has also been a call to action for me, as a bilingual educator, to read more widely in Spanish, in order to improve my own vocabulary, as I found myself often beginning by seeding words in English, then searching online to find the appropriate parallel for use during our Spanish instructional time.
For a year or two, I thought I had invented something clever, until I came upon Isabel Beck’s amazing book, Bringing Words to Life, in which the idea of informally “seeding words” in daily classroom conversation has its own excellent chapter. It turned out she already staked out the territory of “seeding vocabulary” a while ago. But the world of teacher training is a very constructivist place, and in this case, I guess I had to discover the practice for myself.