Literacy Challenges

Literacy happens across subject areas.
It was ten years ago when I first started teaching after having spent nearly twenty in an engineering firm. I used a large vocabulary and, in my opinion, a sophisticated sentence structure and was frequently met with blank stares by the students. I very distinctly remember one geology lesson where a senior girl said "Now you're just making words up, Ms. McCarron."  Since then I have somewhat reduced my vocabulary but more importantly I stop and ask "do you know what that means?"  Many a lesson has been slowed by trying to uncover the meaning of a word and make analogies that work for the students.  A French colleague of mine (in my former career) had once told me that the English language is difficult to learn because it has words that convey a specificity of meaning that other languages do not.  When students ask why I use the unknown word rather than what I gave them as a definition, I tell them that the English language is full of marvelous words to illuminate understanding.

A few weeks back, during lunch duty, I sat with a student who was reviewing her English vocabulary book. Looking at the words I started using them in sentences that related to the lunchroom. "In five minutes a horde of students will evacuate the cafeteria through the egress on the left", I said pointing at the door. There were a few more sentences I made and she said that it was useful to hear them used in new ways. 

At the beginning of last week, a student was complaining to her friend at the beginning of chemistry class about having to learn 20 new words for the week. I looked at her list and said, "write those on the side board and I will use them in sentences during the week."  She looked flabbergasted. "You know all these words?!" I was honest - one I had never used or heard before and I would have to look up. She challenged me: "what's this mean?" pointing at 'stalwart'. "Strong, solid, brave", I said without hesitation. So the words were written on the side chalk board and they were used in sentences, not only by me but by the students as well. It was fun to try to sneak them in and see if they recognized I was using one of 'the words'.

I am a scientist, and I make a lot of English grammar errors. But I enjoyed the exercise and will probably have another set of words written on the side board soon. An article in the London Telegraph today lamented that Teenagers 'only use 800 different words a day'. I don't know about that, but I do know I challenge their vocabulary regularly.

Oh, the word I didn't know? Punctilious, which happens to describe the chemistry student's English teacher perfectly.

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