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In This School…We Do
It would come as no surprise if you instantly recognize the ‘In This House…’ saying. Word choice may vary slightly, but the message is consistent. And while I admire the underlying meaning, I realized the little word “do” was the most significant. It suggests action…not we “wish,” not we “want,” not even we “desire.” “We DO!”
For a moment, let’s direct this same energy to the ELA Common Core State Standards, specifically Vocabulary Acquisition and Use as related to the Anchor Standards for Language. Allow me to more narrowly focus on the use of academic language. I hear many teachers lament the fact that their students’ language skills seem to be disintegrating. How might the expectations change for teachers and students if this banner greeted each person at the school’s entry and in classrooms…if this was what “We DO” or more appropriately in this case, what “We USE?”
If we want students to speak intellectually, we must model the use of academic language as soon as academics begin. In other words, once the conversation turns from the lunch menu and after-school activities in which we use everyday language, we will intentionally turn up the heat on our vocabulary. Here are two strategies that will yield some incredible returns.
#1: Model the use of $100 words and phrases
In the movie, “Pirates of the Caribbean,” I’m reminded of the scene in which the leading lady approaches Captain Barbossa to ask that he leave Port Royal. Their conversation captivates the audience:
“Captain Barbossa, I'm here to negotiate the cessation of hostilities against Port Royal.”
His reply reflects disdain, “We are but humble pirates. What is it that you want?”
Elizabeth Swann: “I want you to leave and never come back.”
Barbossa: “I am disinclined to acquiesce to your request…means no.”
The characters displayed a number of $100 words & phrases. How do we translate this to K-12 classrooms? Consider the phrases that are used on a daily basis:
- “Please line up for lunch.”
- “Class, get ready for your spelling test…”
- “Look at…”
- “What will happen when…”
- “What do you think…”
One group of stellar teachers I observed considered these quick remakes:
ü “Please arrange yourselves in a linear fashion.”
ü “Class, please prepare for your orthographic examination.”
ü “Compare these…”
ü “Predict what may happen when…”
ü “What conclusion might you draw?”
Throughout the remainder of our day the teachers found themselves challenged to reconstruct many of their run-of-the-mill statements. Amazing $100 words were uncovered.
Students can work collaboratively to brainstorm their own casual questions and statements to reflect academic language. One student transformed, “This sucks” into “I no longer find any joy in this activity!” You’ll be amazed how quickly these higher-level words and phrases become the norm.
#2: College Talk
Another opportunity to focus on the use of academic language is with an activity that encourages the use of scaling to encourage ‘college talk.’ It’s as simple as putting words on a continuum to express shades of meaning and allows for the differences in students’ perspectives. Consider these opposites: cheap and expensive. Generate several synonyms for each and place them on a scale. For example: cheap, bargain, discounted, economical, depreciated, nominal, expensive, costly, exclusive, posh, luxurious, and lavish. I love listening to students as they discuss which word best expresses the meaning they’re looking for. It’s amazing to see how higher-level, ‘college’ words are integrated into speaking and writing vocabulary in place of casual choices. We can hear them from children as young as Kindergarten as well as our high school students!
As educators, we owe our use of academic language to the students we teach. Increasing the sophistication of language is an intentional practice…it takes ACTION and can begin at the front door: IN THIS SCHOOL, WE USE ACADEMIC LANGUAGE!