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"Children’s Words Measure Up" Vignette

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A story in which Teachers Emily and Alondra learn from Zobeir about the importance of vocabulary for both teachers and children, and how the “right” word isn’t the goal.

by Linda M. Platas

A Conversation between Teachers Emily and Alondra

Emily:  I don’t know what to do! We try so hard to support vocabulary, but it seems like we get nowhere.

Alondra:  What do you mean?

Emily:  Well, go look for yourself. Zobeir has been making some pretty amazing structures with the blocks, but he describes every thing as “bigger.”

Alondra: Are they smaller, is that the problem?

Emily:  Well, no, they are all bigger, but…

Alondra:  Okay, now you’ve got me really confused. If they are bigger, then I don’t get the problem.

Emily: [Sighing] I mean, yes, his castle wall is bigger than the dragon, but the important part is that it is higher than the dragon—I mean, so the dragon can’t get in. “Bigger” could be wider, too.

Alondra:  Uh-huh.

Emily:  Don’t you see, we’ve been teaching them how important the right word is, but when the children play, they don’t pay much attention to the right word. And when I remind them, they just stare at me and then go back to playing.

Alondra: Hmmm.

Emily: [Sigh]

Later, we find ourselves in Emily’s living room. She is reading a book after dinner. She can’t get the earlier conversation out of her mind and it is disrupting one of the few relaxing hours she has during the day. Thoughts are circulating in her head… Vocabulary is important, right? But a few months ago, Zobeir wasn’t even talking, and now he is one of the most social children in the classroom. Big isn’t really wrong. But I want him to do better! I guess it bugs the children when I interrupt their play to tell them to use a different word. After all, I’m bugged that I can’t concentrate on my book because these thoughts are interrupting my reading!


The next day, Emily chats with Alondra before the children arrive:

Emily:  You know, I’ve been thinking about big.

Alondra:  [With a look of bewilderment on her face] Uh, what?

Emily: Well I thought a lot about Zobeir using the word bigger to describe anything that was in some dimension greater than another object. And how excited we are that he is even talking. I also thought about how I learn new words—especially more accurately descriptive words. And that teaching children the “right” word isn’t really our goal, it’s helping them express themselves.

Alondra:  OK, but how does this relate to what we’re teaching today?

Emily:  I mean, we say we are “happy” when the summer break comes, right? But, really a few more words would get at what we mean more accurately. We are “relaxed,” “relieved,” and maybe even “ecstatic.” But we don’t correct each other and say, “Is happy the right word?” No, we are just happy to use the word happy!

Alondra:  Okay, I get it. But, how does this change what we are doing?

Emily:  Well, I tried to think of how I learn words best. I’m not sure this is the only answer, but I learn best when I hear words in context, actually multiple times in context. Okay… actually, it took me a few years to remember what nadir meant. I think it is a really cool word… the lowest of low, the deepest of deep…

Alondra:  Okay, okay, I get it!

Emily:  Anyway, so I thought maybe one approach would be to concentrate more on what we say in the classroom. The more conversations we have with the children, the more opportunities they get to hear different words in different contexts.

Alondra:  [Sounding a little nervous] Uh, you’re not going to teach them nadir, are you?

Emily:  [Laughing] No… but I realized that we don’t really have too many conversations with the children. I mean, true conversations, where we take a bunch of turns with them and discuss something meaningful. We’ve been basically acting like we are preparing them for a vocabulary test in third grade.

Alondra:  You know, you’re right. We don’t have a lot of conversations with them. I mean I tell them what to do a lot, but they don’t talk much with us. I think it is worth a try.

Emily:  [Grinning] Yep, we’ve been at the nadir of conversation-making. We’ve got to try for the apex.

Alondra:  [Rolling her eyes with a grin].

The next day, we join the classroom while Zobeir is at his castle building again. He once again describes his castle as “bigger.” Emily starts a conversation...

early math dragonEmily:  Can you tell me more about your dragon?

Zobeir:  She’s the biggest of big! She can, she can, um gobble everyone up!

Emily:  What is she doing next to the castle?

Zobeir:  She wants to save the shoemaker in the castle so she’s going to rescue him.

Emily:  How is she going to do that?

Zobeir:  She’s going to burn down the door with her mouth fire.

Emily:  Aha. So she is a fire-breathing dragon. Hmmm... If the door burns up, can the dragon fit through the hole? Won’t it be too short for her to fit through? [pointing to the top of the door]

Zobeir:  Then she’s going to bang her tail on the wall higher and crash it down!

Emily:  Hmmm, so it doesn’t matter that the wall is much taller than she is. [tapping the top of the wall] She’s not climbing over it, she’s going to make a hole with her tail that is tall and wide enough so she can fit through [motioning with her hands], sort of like this?

Zobeir:  Uh huh, the dragon wants some fancy red shoes and the shoemaker is locked up. So she’s going to get him out. Her feet are so long that she can’t find her size in the store. [Pause] My mom has that problem, too.

Emily:  Aha.

Zobeir:  [Looking at Emily’s feet] You have long feet too.


Emily concludes this conversation with Zobeir, and walks over to Alondra who is almost doubled over with laughter. Alondra managed to stop laughing long enough to say, “That was one of the most amazing stories I’ve ever heard. I think that was more like an apex than a nadir.” Emily replied, “Wow, yeah. This is fun.” That was the first of many true conversations where everyone took turns and discussed something meaningful. Like big feet.

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