small words

Word choice is hard to teach explicitly within the context of original composition. Even in revision, kids are apt to keep the words they have as long as those words make sense to them.

I’ve had a gut feeling for 25 years that most kids don’t develop that “gut feeling” for varied language that many adult writers develop. To me, this is a feeling that says, “Oh! Can’t use that word there!” or “Ya know, this word would be so much better here.”

Kids don’t naturally do this because the “game” we teach them about writing is really the game of “drafting”. We often say, “Just get your ideas down for now.” But “now” rarely becomes later. When it does, word-level revisions often aren’t nearly as important as idea- and organization-level improvements. These changes have to be made first anyway lest we spend our time working with words only to abandon them when our ideas are out whack or we cut a section to improve organizational flow.

When it comes to word choice, I want kids to get the same feeling I get, the feeling that a word or phrase isn’t quite right or that a more right alternative would make a difference. But I’m completely convinced kids have to experience this explicitly—during original composition—in order to develop the true intuitive sense so many advanced writers have for words that are “just right”.

 

Constrained Writing

To help kids make different word choices, I often use so-called “constrained writing” activities. These are just simple activities with a constraint about how they are to be completed.

A palindrome is a form of constrained writing where a thought must read identically forward and backward: “Ana nab a banana.” So is a pangram where all 26 letters must be used in a sentence: “How vexingly quick daft zebras jump!”

The constrained writing activity I like best for teaching word choice, and for helping writers learn how to say things simply and clearly, is the “single-syllable” piece. That is, only words of a single syllable are permitted.

Here’s a self-referential example from my book, “Be a Better Writer”, that is an explanation, in single-syllable words, explaining why these small words work so well.

 

SMALL WORDS

What if there was a rule that said you had to use small words when you wrote? Could you still say what you had to say?

We tend to think big words are worth more than small ones. But I think this is wrong.

Small words do big things. They are clean, they are clear, they are strong, they are true. They help us write how we feel, say what we mean, be who we are.

 

I’ve taught this to kids as young as 2nd or 3rd grade. No matter what we come up with, it always sounds like poetry, even though I always use it as a means of writing prose.

 

It’s About Choice, Not Words

Most adults think kids who use big words are smart. I think kids who use the best words are smart. I know I’m pushing a huge societal bounder up a hill and having the typical Sysiphean experience of getting kids to do exactly what I think they need to do—and then watching their skills roll all the way back to down to where they were when they move on to the next grade.

So be it. I teach a lot of things that are, paradoxically, highly valued by society, yet hardly valued in school. Many of us do. That’s part of the heartbreak so many of us go through during this highly restrictive time in education.

The writing skill I’m teaching here has nothing whatsoever to do with expanding kids’ vocabulary; I’m actually trying to show how a constrained vocabulary is often more effective. The constraint forces writers to go through word after word as they work to find something of one syllable, or a set of single-syllable words that helps them express a thought.

The hardest part about teaching word choice is getting kids to realize that they are intentionally choosing the words they use. Constrained writing activities force them to recognize this explicitly. After many practice sessions, kids become more flexible writers in their regular work after completing just a few short passages in a constrained style.

In my next article, I’ll share another constrained writing exercise, one that has been used to write entire full-length novels.

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