Tools of the Trade: Words
By Rita Sorrentino
My 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.
This 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 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.
Thesaurus.com, Dictionary.com and Reference.com 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 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.