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Meggin McIntosh

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Educators - Expand Vocabulary Development - Use Lists of Descriptors
By Meggin McIntosh   
Rated "G" by the Author.
Last edited: Saturday, February 28, 2009
Posted: Saturday, February 28, 2009

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Having taught primary level, intermediate grade, middle school, high school, undergraduate, and graduate students, I think I can speak from experience when I say that too often, when students write, they often use the same old tired terms. Not only is such a limited writing vocabulary dreadful to read if you are the one assessing the papers, but accepting such limited descriptive language is educational malpractice (yes, I did say that). If we do not expect - and teach for - the use of high-level words when students are writing (and speaking), then we have severely restricted their ultimate success in life. Consider using lists of words that will intrigue students. This article offers suggestions for how to do so.

Having taught primary level, intermediate grade, middle school, high school, undergraduate, and graduate students, I think I can speak from experience when I say that too often, when students write, they often use the same old tired terms.

 "She was nice."

"He was mean."

"The dog looked sad."


Not only is such a limited writing vocabulary dreadful to read if you are the one assessing the papers, but accepting such limited descriptive language is educational malpractice (yes, I did say that). If we do not expect - and teach for - the use of high-level words when students are writing (and speaking), then we have severely restricted their ultimate success in life. I have a quote from Steven Stahl on one of my websites that expresses why we need to provide constant and targeted vocabulary instruction:

    "Vocabulary knowledge is knowledge; the knowledge of a word not only implies a definition, but also implies how that word fits into the world."

So, if you want your students to have a better chance at life and everything it has to offer, then you want to make sure that they are acquiring the vocabulary knowledge that will give them the world view necessary. But, I digress.

Several years ago, I generated a list of 1001 Descriptors for my own use with students. You can access the list I have or generate a list of whatever length (and type) that will work for your situation. Whenever you have an intriguing list of words, there will rarely be a reason for your writers to use the same word more than once. Encouraging students to explore new and more precise words in their writing ties in directly, of course, with the vocabulary development you are constantly striving for. Students can't be using words in their writing that they don't know the meanings of (heaven forbid!). When you use a list, such as the 1001 Descriptors, then your students can be intrigued by a word, search for and learn its meaning, and then reinforce their understanding by using the word in their writing.

A few ways I've used these words with students include the following:

  1. Circle words in students' writing that you *know* they can use a more specific and accurate term. Challenge them to go through the list and find a word that will better express their thoughts.
  2. Toss out a word from the 1001 Descriptors list that you think they will be intrigued by. Then work together to generate ways that word can be used in their upcoming written work.
  3. Celebrate when students use words that are outside the realm of typical ___ - grade writing. Be surprised and excited (which I always was when I witnessed my students extending themselves and trying out new language). Your excitement is contagious, no matter what age your students are.
  4. Make a list of ho-hum words that you want students to avoid. For example, pretty, nice, friendly, ugly, sad, upset, smart, etc. Then, create lists and word maps of words that they could use instead. In my class, we devised a little yawning and patting-our-mouths signal when someone even said one of the ho-hum words.


Take these ideas and generate as many more as you can think of so that students access and integrate the words from the 1001 Descriptors list.

And if you want to save yourself some time and effort and would like to obtain a PDF copy of the "1001 Descriptors," just go to http://www.OwningWordsforLiteracy.com and click on the Downloads tab. You'll see a variety of items there (and most are free) to access for your classroom or other use (PowerPoint shows, Word documents, and PDFs).

Educators have the most influential positions in our society - and need every bit of support that can be mustered. Another resource that will help increase educators' sense of peaceful, predictable productivity are these free weekly emails:

**Top Ten Productivity Tips    http://www.TopTenProductivityTips.com

(c) 2009 by Meggin McIntosh, Ph.D., "The Ph.D. of Productivity"(tm)

Through her company, Emphasis on Excellence, Inc., Meggin McIntosh changes what people know, feel, dream, and do via seminars, workshops, writing, coaching, and consulting.

Web Site: Emphasis On Excellence



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