Word choice embraces all the words and phrases a writer uses to create meaning, imagery, or voice. With at least a quarter of a million words in the English language (depending on whether a word like rock is one word or several, based on how it’s used), there are multiple ways to say just about anything—unless highly technical language is required. So the focus with this trait is on choice: choosing words that suit the topic, the audience, and the writer’s intended tone or message.
Link to the CCSS
When you think about it, every single one of the Common Core standards for writing is related to word choice. After all, words are the tools we have for making meaning clear and organizing thoughts. In addition, though, several standards make specific reference to this critical trait.
Emphasis on word choice in the CCSS spans all genres, and is most clearly evident in writing standards 1 through 3, which spell out the following requirements (Note: We are paraphrasing here; for precise wording, please see http://www.commoncore.org):
For informational writing or argument—
1. Write in a formal style—which is also voice, but formality is achieved through language
2. Use appropriate transitions to clarify relationships between ideas
3. Use precise or domain-specific vocabulary—in other words, choose words wisely, and be comfortable with any terminology pertaining to the content area or topic
For narrative writing—
4. Use transitions to signal shifts in time or setting
5. Include relevant descriptive details
6. Include sensory details
A word about transitions
Transitions are achieved through language, obviously—e.g., words or phrases such as for example, to illustrate, however, therefore, in spite of this, first of all, a few days later, and so on. Words and phrases are not the only kinds of transitions we use, however. Sentences, paragraphs—even whole chapters—can serve a transitional purpose. Moreover, while transitions—bridges from idea to idea—are achieved through wording, they’re really more about organization. Good transitions enable readers to track the writer’s thinking, through examples (for instance), flow of time (the next day), emphasis (what’s more), parallel ideas (similarly), contrast (on the other hand), and more.
Teaching Word Choice
Vocab lists revisited. Traditionally, language has been taught through vocabulary lists, which are probably not terribly harmful (though memorizing them does eat up precious time), but probably don’t do a great deal of good, either. Unless . . . they are connected directly to reading. The difference is that isolated words on a list are quickly forgotten, while words in context are far more likely to be remembered. If students learn a few key words (say five, as opposed to twenty), then read text in which those words are used, both reading and vocabulary benefit.
Reading, reading, reading. Seeing and hearing language used well is key to vocabulary growth, so reading is essential. Students need to read both silently and aloud—and need to be read to, as well. This is true even for older students. Why? Because a skilled reader—e.g., a teacher or parent—uses inflections that bring out meaning. To many of us, reading aloud feels like a treat—the slice of cake after all the broccoli has been eaten. But actually, it’s one of the most valuable instructional activities available to us.
Revising. Good word choice isn’t just about acquiring new words, however. It’s also about using the words we know well. Everyday language comes to life in the hands of a skilled writer. But gaining this kind of skill takes practice. Writing every day is one way to get it. Here’s another: revising unclear writing. I do not mean the student’s own writing, either. If students only revise their own work, they will never get enough practice in revision because they simply don’t write enough. The world is filled with writing that is unclear, vague, or downright senseless. Be a collector of such writing, and ask your students to try revising it, a sentence or short paragraph at a time. They can work with partners or even in small groups to do this. They will enjoy it thoroughly, and their word choice skills will grow by leaps and bounds. (Watch our next post for one example you can use with middle school or high school students.)
Following are several of our favorite books for teaching and modeling word choice. We hope you like our choices, and we invite you to recommend some of your own.
Book 1: World Without Fish by Mark Kurlansky. 2011. New York: Workman Publishing. Genre: Argument. Ages: 5th grade and up, including adults.
This offers one heck of a lot of instructional bang for your book dollar. By that I mean that you can use it to illustrate clarity, organizational structure, effective and precise word choice, and more–including presentation AND the art of argument.
The book is very appealing, in a whimsical, edgy sort of way. Kurlansky and his editorial team weave together photography, cartoon graphics, paintings and sketches, along with playful use of fonts and colors. The page design is brilliant. It’s meant to draw in young (sometimes reluctant) readers, and it does.
In addition, though, the book is written with a persuasive voice that is simultaneously appropriate and passionate. Kurlansky speaks as a man who means what he says. He writes with the confidence that only comes with knowing a topic extremely well, through firsthand knowledge and research. His is a voice of urgency that says to readers—albeit in a polite way—“Hey, listen up”:
The United States government said in a 2002 study that one-third of the 274 most eaten types of fish are threatened by too much fishing. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization says this is true of almost two out of every three types of fish they have studied in the world. The oceans are in serious trouble. (p. xxiii)
The book is filled with scientific terminology, but Kurlansky uses it gracefully, consistently making meaning clear from context (e.g., the term “Cambrian”): In the ocean, that would mean sea life returning to conditions 550 million years ago in a time known as the early Cambrian period—long before dinosaurs. (p. 5)
The chapters are carefully arranged to support Kurlansky’s argument that current fishing practice is dooming our oceans. He lays out the problem, explains how we got to this point, shows why previously posed solutions will not work, then suggests things we can do. The organizational structure is compelling—as are the details and documented research. You could literally spend a week discussing this book in the classroom, then ask students to draft a response either supporting or countering Kurlansky’s argument. Note: If you fish, enjoy eating fish, or are a supporter of marine life in general, you do not want to miss this book.
Book 2: Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand. 2001. New York: Ballantine. Genre: Nonfiction history, combining narrative and informational writing. Ages: Adult (but individually selected passages are suitable for upper elementary and beyond).
Hillenbrand’s book has won so many awards, it takes a full page to list them. All are deserved. This is a fine piece of research, but it has all the page-turning appeal of a great novel. It combines a remarkable portrait of 1930s America with the incredible story of a horse that became an American icon. Seabiscuit was small for a thoroughbred, and ran so badly early in his career that he did not seem destined to ever win a race. In what could be described as the perfect storm of horse racing, the destinies of three men—owner Charles Howard, trainer Tom Smith, and legendary jockey Red Pollard—came together and pushed the little horse to immortality. For a few years, America’s down and out public had something in which to believe.
Research. The book is incredibly well-researched, through reading (including the private scrapbooks of Charles Howard, “a wealth of newspaper and magazine clippings, photographs, telegrams, and letters,” personal visits, and interviews (Notes, p. 349). If you choose to share parts of it with students, use a document projector to skim through the notes so students can see just how voluminous this research was. You may also wish to read sections from the Acknowledgments, in which Hillenbrand talks about how she gathered her information.
Word choice. In an interview a few years ago, I heard Laura Hillenbrand say that she likes to keep modifiers to a minimum in her writing, relying on the strength of precise nouns and energetic verbs to create imagery and meaning. Seabiscuit is a masterpiece of effective verb usage. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the book features numerous racing scenarios, all of which Hillenbrand recounts in a dramatic fashion that makes you feel you’re watching a film. Consider this passage describing the Santa Anita Handicap race in which three of the fastest horses in the world are pitted against one another:
Whichcee screamed along the rail, stretching out over the backstretch, trying to hold his head in front. Seabiscuit stalked him with predatory lunges. Wedding Call tracked them, just behind and outside of Seabiscuit as they pushed for the far turn. They clipped through a mile in 1:36, nearly a second faster than Seabiscuit and War Admiral’s record-shattering split in their 1938 match race. Seabiscuit still pushed at Whichcee. Pollard, up in the saddle, was a lion poised for the kill. (p. 321)
Technical precision. As noted previously, Hillenbrand literally spent years researching Seabiscuit. As a result, she writes with knowledge and precision about the world of racing. For an outstanding example of this, see her extended informational passage on Thoroughbreds and jockeys, pages 70 and following. Notice how Hillenbrand manages with ease to accomplish the ultimate goal of good informational writers, which is to make readers feel like experts.
Book 3: Reign of the Sea Dragons by Sneed B. Collard III. 2008. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge. Genre: Nonfiction science writing. Ages: Fourth grade and up for independent reading; all ages for selected passages shared aloud.
For precise use of language—a quality emphasized in the CCSS—Collard’s books are hard to beat. (Check out this prolific writer online for a wide range of nonfiction books ideal for teaching and modeling informational writing at its best.) Collard uses words with care, and great accuracy. It is evident in each line that he wants readers to understand what he is saying, and he has a talent for making the complex clear and accessible. Consider this passage from the book’s introduction (noticing the pronunciation guides, so helpful to younger readers):
The elasmosaur and the Pliosaur belonged to an astonishing collection of reptiles that filled our oceans during the Mesozoic (MEZ-oh-zoh-ik) era, about 25 to 65 million years ago. Some of these reptiles, such as crocodilians and turtles, have familiar relatives that survive today. Most, however, were totally different from anything in our modern world. They included porpoiselike ichthyosaurs (IK-thee-oh-sohrs), the long-necked elasmosaurs, and enormous mosasaurs (MOSS-uh-sohrs) with curved daggers for teeth. Scientists often refer to these reptiles as sea dragons, and they include some of the most extraordinary, awesome predators the world has ever known. (p. 13)
If you’re thinking that last sentence is intended as an enticing transition, you’re right. This book is chock full of predators, prey, and conflict. Sneed, who is a friend, once told me, “You can’t just pile facts on people relentlessly—fact, fact, fact. They can’t absorb it, and they stop paying attention. You need a little drama mixed in there. Good writing has a rhythm to it. It goes more like fact, fact, fact, drama—fact, fact, fact, drama—like a dance.” This is why, when we teach students about genre, we need to make it clear that genres are not mutually exclusive. Good informational writing and argument make use of narrative examples to hold readers’ attention—but also to clarify meaning. We learn from informational writing, but the human brain craves story. (See Appendix A of the Common Core for a discussion of this.)
Research. You may wish to share “Learning More About Sea Dragons,” a summary of Collard’s research, aloud (p. 55). Encourage students to visit the websites listed on page 56—and to discover others on their own. Collard also includes a fine list of museums (pp. 56-57) that display sea dragon dioramas and fossils. The idea of visiting a museum or similar venue may broaden the way some students view research.
The book also includes an excellent glossary and index, both worth sharing with a document camera. You may want to discuss when such features should be included with a piece of writing. Are glossaries and indices just for books—or could they be important components of reports your students might produce?
Book 4: Amos & Boris by William Steig. 2004 (reissued). New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Genre: Picture book. Ages: All. The book is directed at young readers, but adults love this book.
Like all of Steig’s books, this one has depth—and passion. It is a touching story of the unlikely friendship between the compassionate whale Boris and the adventurer mouse Amos, told in eloquent language. It is my all-time favorite picture book, and I have shared it with countless children and adults, and given away many copies as gifts.
Sometimes in our zeal to teach precision and technical correctness, we forget to help children appreciate the value of words used beautifully—like this:
One night, in a phosphorescent sea, he marveled at the sight of some whales spouting luminous water; and later, lying on the deck of his boat gazing at the immense, starry sky, the tiny mouse Amos, a little speck of a living thing in the vast living universe, felt thoroughly akin to it all. (Unpaginated text)
That’s flat-out gorgeous writing. Children who hear this passage for the first time have an immediate, intuitive connection to words like phosphorescent, marveled, luminous, immense, speck, vast, and akin. When it comes to expanding students’ vocabulary, the power of reading dwarfs anything lists and memorization can ever hope to accomplish.
We mustn’t forget that the most important things we teach cannot be captured in standards. If we do not teach students to love books, and to treasure some over others, then nothing else we teach them about the mechanics of word choice will matter very much.
Book 5: Hatchet by Gary Paulsen. 2007. New York: Simon & Schuster. Genre: Fiction. Ages: Grade 5 and up. All ages for selected passages.
The CCSS calls for students to include sensory details in their narrative writing. No one does this better than Gary Paulsen, whether he is writing novels, short stories, or nonfiction accounts of his own experiences. All good narrative writers include visual details. What sets Paulsen apart is his talent for zeroing in on just the tactile, auditory, or olfactory details that make readers feel they are sharing an experience. Hatchet is filled with these. Brian, the hero, is particularly sensitive to smells, especially after being alone in the wilderness for some days—and knowing extreme hunger. In this passage, we not only picture the fish, but hear it sizzling over the fire and smell the aroma:
He cut a green willow fork and held the fish over the fire until the skin crackled and peeled away and the meat inside was flaky and moist and tender. This he picked off carefully with his fingers, tasting every piece, mashing them in his mouth with his tongue to get the juices out of them, hot steaming pieces of fish . . . (p. 127)
For a little contrast, read Paulsen’s account of eating turtle eggs—a lost person’s last resort (pp. 99 and following).
As you peruse Hatchet, it may hit you how easy it is to weave sensory detail into narrative involving food (just as athletic scenarios lend themselves to use of strong verbs, as in Seabiscuit). Encourage your writers to write a narrative involving the preparation or consumption of food—any memorable experience, good or bad, will do. There are two tricks to making this kind of writing successful: (1) go beyond the visual, including sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile sensations; and (2) don’t hold back—include the ugly or unpleasant details along with the pleasant ones.
Coming Up on Gurus . . .
As promised, we’ll provide you with a passage much in need of revision with respect to clarity and word choice—and offer suggestions for using this in a revision lesson with students. Meantime, Happy New Year to each and every one of you. Thank you for stopping by, and please come often. If you enjoy our posts, please recommend them to friends. And remember, for the very best in writing workshops featuring traits, standards, writing process, and literature, call us at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.