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Tools of the Trade: Words

By Rita Sorrentino

toolsMy father kept his tools in the front corner of our cellar. With an old table and a makeshift pegboard, he organized, cared for, and generously shared the items in his mini hardware store. He was fond of telling us that it was important to have the right tool for the task, and with better tools, you could do a better job. My mother loved words. Having quit school during the Depression, she continued to educate herself through reading, studying words, and engaging in conversation. She loved dictionaries, crossword puzzles, and meaningful quotations. She would write out favorite quotes and important words and meanings on scraps of paper and place them around the house for us to find and learn. From both parents, I came to understand how tools reshape our physical space, and words, the tools of language, shape and reshape our thoughts, beliefs, and social interactions.

Critical to speaking and writing is having the right words to express our feelings, articulate our thoughts, and support our arguments. In today’s classrooms, vocabulary study is getting more attention due to Common Core States Standards. Across all areas of the curriculum, students are receiving instruction for acquiring new vocabulary, and understanding the nuances and relationships among words. The relationship between vocabulary and comprehension is well known from research findings in professional journals as well as by teachers’ observing and sharing their promising practices.  Continuous growth in word knowledge has moved beyond the “look-it-up method,” and today’s students engage in meaningful activities with multiple exposures within different contexts. With time for word study, word sorts, and focus on word origins, students may develop a curiosity about words that extends their learning beyond the classroom.

rogetThis year the Keystone State Reading Association (KSRA) is featuring The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus written by Jen Bryant and illustrated by Melissa Sweet for its 2015 One Book, One Conference initiative. It was named a Caldecott Honorbook for excellence in illustration, and won the Sibert Medal for excellence in children’s nonfiction.Although listed as an elementary biography picture book, The Right Word offers readers of all ages an appreciation of Roget’s determination to help find that “just right” word. “I want everyone to be able to use my word book, not just doctors, politicians, and lawyers, but cobblers, fishmongers, and factory workers.” Roget’s fascination with words persisted throughout his medical and mathematical career, as he continued to refine his catalogue of words. When finally he was “possessed of more leisure,” his Thesaurus was first published in 1852, and has been in print every year to date.

An in-depth discussion guide for using The Right Word was prepared by Rose Cappelli (2015 KRSA Conference Chair) and Lynne Dorfman (a Co-director of PAWLP). The guide offers a range of before, during and after reading activities (linked to Common Core) for engaging with this beautifully written and illustrated text. Extending our understanding of Peter Roget’s labor of love for using precise words can ignite a curiosity about words, and spark interest in exploring words and worlds with a new lens of possibilities.

Today we have the advantage of extending our vocabulary and love of words with digital resources. Among the many online resources, here are a few that might prove useful for ourselves and our students:

Roget’s Thesaurus Alphabetical Index has a simple interface for listing words in alphabetical order as well as a search feature. With no distractions, it makes a good start for younger students.

snappy wordsSnappy Words  is an easy-to-use interactive dictionary and thesaurus that provides the meanings and connections of words and phrases. It generates synonyms and draws visual connections to associated words. You can easily see the meaning of each word by hovering over it. The words in the visual map are automatically color-coded according to parts of speech. This is a handy tool for helping students pay more attention to word choice in their writing as well as an opportunity  to play with words and learn word associations through the visual interactive display., and are online resources bringing words to life with a host of tools and features. Registration is only required if you wish to save and share searches and results. The associated mobile apps include in-app purchases so you need to upgrade to take full advantage. A stand alone app, Thesaurus Rex, received great reviews and is a good option for those wish to purchase it for $2.99 for iPhone and iPad. It includes synonym search with best matches, audio searches, and inclusion of modern words and phrases.

The next time we reach for a printed, digital or word processing tool to find that just right word, let’s give a nod of thanks to Peter Roget for his fascination with words and dedication to list-making that continue to enrich us with the tools we need for speaking, writing, reading and listening.

Rita Sorrentino profileRita Sorrentino is a recently retired teacher from Overbrook Elementary School in Philadelphia. Rita is finding new pathways for working with teachers and students to use digital tools for reading writing, speaking and listening. She presented ‘Beyond Superheroes: Using Comics Across the Curriculum” at the PETE&C Conference in Hershey in February. Rita joined the Pennsylvania Writing Project in 2004 and the Philadelphia Writing Project in 1994.

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Madison #

    I agree that “the tools of language, shape and reshape our thoughts, beliefs, and social interactions.” The relationship between vocabulary and comprehension is more important than most know, and critical thinking in regards to what we’ve read allows us to dive deeper into the text and understand it better, posing questions along the way. The part about digital resources allowing us to expand our love of words got me thinking about all the apps on smartphones such as scrabble, words with friends, 4 pics 1 word, word buzz, etc. These interactive apps allow us to learn and challenge ourselves at the same time, making words great tools to expand our knowledge and everyday vocabulary.


    October 24, 2015
  2. Kit Bradley #

    I can so easily relate to your opening about your father’s tools. In my childhood home, the garage–which solely belonged to my father–was the cleanest, most organized room in the house. The walls were lined with units, full of drawer organizers and containers of all sizes, with every tool having a particular home. What amazed me the most, however, was not how well he maintained his collection, but the fact that despite the plethora of tools that he owned, he was always adding to the bunch. Some jobs required that one tool that he didn’t yet possess. And I think words work the same way. Our vocabulary will never be enough; we’ll always be searching for the next, more-perfect word to better express our thoughts and feelings. Maybe it’s just because I’m entering the field of English, but this excites me! Perhaps presenting word choice to students as a continuous game of seek and find will excite them as well!

    In high school, I primarily used the prehistoric version of a thesaurus known as a book. And you’re right that today students have that thesaurus with them at all times, waiting in their pockets. It’s our job as teachers to incite the significance of precise word choice so that students have a reason to utilize those beneficial resources. I think the best way to do this is to model our own word choice habits in our classrooms, allowing students to see that we’re still playing that seek and find game, continuously searching for clarity in our language with the words that we choose.

    Thank you so much for sharing your insight and resources!


    October 21, 2015
  3. Amber #

    This article is wonderful. As an education major concentrating on English, I am constantly writing papers and trying to find the best words possible to use in my papers. I am very guilty of using and the synonyms option on Microsoft Word to avoid repetition in my papers. I think word choice has become very underrated in our fast pace lives. People are too focused on getting their voice out there that they forget to focus on what is they are actually saying. Words are powerful.

    I love your intro about your mother and sharing quotes with all of you and your siblings. I think it would be a fun idea in my future classroom to start each class with an inspirational or meaningful quote. In one my education classes, currently, we have a “mindful minute” to reflect on anything we want to for one minute at the start of class. I think it would be beneficial to have students write about these quotes and perhaps the word choice.


    October 20, 2015
  4. Michael #

    Rita, the tool metaphor took me right to a favorite poem of mine. “Digging” by Seamus Heaney refers to work ethic and tools of his father and grandfather, but instead of a spade, the narrator’s tool is a pen. As a future teacher, and someone who uses their app on their smart phone almost daily, I enjoyed the information regarding online resources. I look forward to one day doing my best to integrate technology into the classroom.


    October 20, 2015
  5. Mark B #

    Much of what Rita writes in this post I completely agree with, words are critical for using language. Words and the language they help create are a true source of power. However, language becomes unwieldy without the proper skills and tools necessary to acutely utilize its full potential. Those “tools” often provide a writer the means to create a beautiful piece of work. The absence of these “tools” generates incomplete ideas and diluted conversations. Students should become conscious and excited by words, for they are critical components in expressing themselves. The most important tasks an educator has, in my opinion, is to provide lifelong tools to students, hone their skill with those tools, and help them realize the life importance of said learning. These resources help support that bridge.

    Thank you, Rita, for sharing these digital resources. I particularly like the Snappy Words resource and the available interaction that one is able to have with language; it makes language more tangible. I’m sure students love it too!


    October 18, 2015
  6. Christine Bondira #

    As an aspiring English teacher, one of the biggest challenges I anticipate having in the classroom is how to get my students to have the same love of language that I do. Even now, I find that when I tell people I’m studying English they seem underwhelmed by my choice, wondering what value there is behind studying a language I already know, or reading books of fiction. I find your way of comparing words to tools to be a wonderfully universal metaphor that really shows the importance of words through a simple comparison. Just the power of that image alone is demonstrative of the idea you want to share: that words are influential in shaping our world and the way receive and perceive things.

    I think that the lack of enthusiasm for English that I have found in some people is a reflection of classrooms past where learning language was more of a chore than anything else. I am so glad to hear that in classrooms today are putting more emphasis on vocabulary and finding fun and meaningful ways for kids to learn about it. Language will never be obsolete, nor will writing ever be irrelevant. I want to help my students start to develop this idea from a young age so that they can spread the same message you are sending about the importance and joy of using words. I really appreciate the resources you have mentioned and posted here and I look forward to using them for myself as well as my future students! Words themselves are tools, but sometimes we need the right methods and resources to teach us how to use these tools and aid our comprehension. Great post!


    October 18, 2015
  7. Rita,
    What a beautiful opening — what follows is equally engaging and insightful. What a pleasure to read and ponder. Thank you!


    October 15, 2015
  8. Colleen Thompson #

    This article was truly eloquently written and engaging to the reader. I found the introduction where you connected your father’s tool choice to choosing the correct word to be very clever and profound. I believe that it was truly the perfect analogy for this article. Another highlight, in my opinion, was how your writing style made the article relatable to your audience. For instance, I believe that most people are or have a tool-obsessed person in their life and could relate with the opening paragraph. I also found your recommendation of websites to be very helpful. I know from personal experience, that when I am writing an essay I am often looking for a synonym for a word or a better word choice, but I cannot find one. Having these resources at my fingertips will defiantly help to get me out of this jam. I also appreciate how you addressed the issue of having to choose between the Common Core requirements and gaining an expansive vocabulary. As a future educator, I often found fault with having to sacrifice one or the other to accomplish what the students must learn. I believe that having an expansive vocabulary makes student better readers and writer and therefore better adapted to succeed at the requirements of the Common Core.


    October 15, 2015
  9. My father has a lot of tools hanging in his garage. His father, a pipe fitter by trade and woodworker/craftsman for pleasure, had a lot of tools. Something I have taken from each is the respect they place(d) on their tools. I think that comes from actually using the tools. You become a builder, a fixer, a creator…and your ideas rely on the right tool…so much so that maybe one’s thinks through the tool, so to speak. We understand the possibilities. We understand the limitations. And so we care for our tools…and, just like them, we beam when we discover a new tool that we can really put to good use.


    October 15, 2015

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