May 15, 2010

A "Dinosaur" Can Be a Dangerous Thing

Have you ever referred to your thesaurus as a "dinosaur?" Makes sense, right? Brontosaurus, stegasaurus, thesaurus... Plus, it's infinitely easier to say "dinosaur" than "thesaurus." And it was fun back in the day to have the inside joke with the high school English teacher: "Where's your dinosaur, Mrs. B.?"

In an online forum I frequent, someone recently asked how to help improve her child's writing. One responder said, "Get him a thesaurus." To which I vehemently replied, "No, no, no, no, no!"

It's not that thesauruses (thesauri?) - see, it's even easier in writing to speak of "dinosaurs!" - are innately bad. At different times, I've actually entertained myself by browsing through the dinosaur to discover new words (yes, I am a total language arts geek!). And Mr. Roget's handy book has its place among a writer's helpful tools.

But a dinosaur can really be a dangerous thing in the hands of an unsupervised young scribe.

Picture it: You assign your student a writing task and set him to work while you busy yourself grading the previous day's math worksheets. Such a child will inevitably run into two big problems if given free reign with the dinosaur.

First, he'll end up using many words out of context as he picks the "most interesting-sounding" synonyms he finds. Thus, "It was a dark and stormy evening" might become, "It was an umbrageous and obstreperous gloaming." And it will only get worse from there, yielding a piece that will be entirely incomprehensible and off-topic in the end. (By the way, that's a prompt you should never actually offer...unless you're asking your student to create a satire on purpose.)

Second, the child will lose his "voice." A 10-year old's vocabulary does not typically include words like "umbrageous" and "gloaming." Thus, even on the off-chance that your child uses such words correctly in context, a piece that includes a great deal of such over-the-top vocabulary will not sound like him. At best, it'll come across as artificial and pretentious; at worst, it'll be obvious that he spent the afternoon lounging with a dinosaur.

As I said earlier, using a thesaurus has its place in a writer's toolbox. After all, we're taught early-on as writers to use "strong words," and one way to find such language is to consult Roget. However, a young writer should never be allowed to sit down with the dinosaur during the drafting phase of the writing process.

Drafting is all about getting the writer's real thoughts onto paper (or computer screen), and a first draft should be unvarnished and real - given in the author's true voice, whatever it may be. Step two in the writing process is revision, the time when an author clarifies ideas, improves organization, and strengthens word choice, among other things. (And - by the way, just for the record - revision is not the time to focus on fixing spelling and grammar; that task should be reserved for writing's third step, editing - after all the creative work is complete.)

So it's during revision that you might judiciously - and with supervision - pull out the ol' dinosaur. Talk to your child about "strong words" (i.e., innately descriptive nouns and vibrantly active verbs rather than strings of flowery adjectives and adverbs). Then point out a few "weak words" in his piece, and guide him through choosing appropriate replacement synonymns. Help him place them correctly and choose words that do not steal his writer's voice in the process; a writer can really only "own" a piece, after all, if it sounds like it came from his head.

In addition, decrease his need for the thesaurus all together by building up his vocabulary. Then he can naturally choose for his writing strong words he understands and already uses when he speaks...which will ensure that his writing "sounds like him."

The best way to improve a child's vocabulary is through modeling. So, first - even with a newborn - talk to him a lot (using a "technique" called running monologue, which simply means you speak to your baby as you would anyone else, explaining tasks as you accomplish them and describing things around you). Your child will absorb tons of high-quality language just by listening to you, especially if you minimize your use of "baby talk" in the process.

Second, read to your child - from day one and every day thereafter! And encourage (i.e., require) him to read daily from high-quality literature once he's capable on his own. Just consider daily read-alouds a non-negotiable part of your job as a parent...from infancy and, yes, well past the age when he can read on his own and then all the way through to the day before he leaves for college! And insist that he also read daily for enjoyment on his own once he can. I cannot overstate the importance of either component; research fairly screams the undeniable benefits of both for all aspects of a child's cognitive and language growth, including vocabulary development.

In my opinion, that type of natural vocabulary-building is plenty in the early childhood and elementary years. As with grammar study, I'm personally not a fan of formal vocabulary instruction for young children (i.e., prior to middle school). For one thing, it's simply redundant for a child receiving the types of high-quality language input mentioned above; for another, the kind of "word dissection" that occurs in typical vocabulary study deadens most young children's natural interest in the beautiful subject areas we call "language arts." And that's a cognitive crime, in my opinion.

Now, with older children - those who've matured to the point of being "abstract thinkers" - I think formal vocabulary study has a very important place. However, it will only be most effective when children have previously benefitted from (and continue to receive) the types of modeling mentioned above.

In terms of secondary-level resources, I haven't yet fully investigated the options because my girls are still young. But I'm sure many good possibilities exist, and I look forward to discovering them in a few years. I do highly recommend one resource - used by my wonderful English teacher, Mrs. B., and still available: Word Power Made Easy by Norman Lewis. I think so highly of this little book that I've already purchased copies for my girls - even though they're now just eight and nine - in case it's out of print by the time they're teens.

So, how does one help a child to become a better writer? Well, that's a many-faceted answer, of course - one aspect of which is helping him develop a strong vocabulary. Though teaching him to correctly use a thesaurus might be part of that process, throwing him to the dinosaur is not the appropriate first response.

Photo Credit: Will Binder

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