Monday, April 4, 2011

Word Power

Words are powerful, and knowing lots of them is not only vital to success in school, but downright empowering.  Can there be anything more satisfying than using just the right word at the right time?

Example #1
One day in 2nd grade, my teacher played a phonics game with the class, seeing how many words we could make ending in "an."   Man, can, pan, even plan - soon we had a nice long list and the hands stopped going up.  But there was one word missing, a word I had read over and over in a book at home.  I raised my hand hesitantly.
"Wan," I said, pronouncing it to rhyme with man.
"I don't think that's a word," my teacher said kindly.
I hadn't expected that.  This was awkward.  I turned red.  "No, it is.  It's in a book.  I think it means pale - like "why so pale and wan, fond lover?"
My teacher blinked.  "Oh - wan!" she said, pronouncing it to rhyme with John.  "Yes, that's a word."  She wrote it on the board, and thus was my reputation for genius assured among the teachers at Westminster Ave. Elementary School.
No, I wasn't reading classic English poetry at age 7 (or at age 45, either - just now I had to look up that quote to find out that it's the first line of a poem by Sir John Suckling, 1609-1642), but rather a novelty book that took the first lines of famous poems and added silly second lines to create "fractured poetry."  Too bad I can't remember the 2nd line.  I loved this book, though I had no idea that the first lines were famous; nor did I get most of the jokes (it was absolutely a book for adults, probably published in the 50s). There were funny rhymes and goofy cartoon illustrations; this was all that mattered.

Example #2
When I was about 9 years old, a pair of mischievous twins in our gang of kids drove us all into absolute frenzies of frustrated fury one afternoon by coolly and disdainfully calling us "dromedaries."  We were certain this must be the worst insult ever, and it was only after someone finally tattled to an adult that we learned its meaning.  Not only did the twins get to snicker and giggle at us for hours, but they didn't even get in trouble for using a bad word.  This still strikes me as a truly fabulous and hilarious prank.

Example #3
My 4-year-old daughter's Pre-K teacher asked the class if anyone could think of any other words that mean "little," probably hoping for small, tiny, and so on.  My daughter raised her hand.
"Miniature," she said.
The teacher raised her eyebrows as I beamed with pride from the back of the room, where I was cutting out construction paper hearts.  It was like "wan" all over again!  Except that this word came not from a book but from a museum we had visited recently, the Museum of Miniatures.

Example #4
I spent more than 10 hours snugged up next to a 20-month-old toddler during a car trip with friends to the mountains this past weekend, plus many more hours talking and playing with her in the cabin.  Phoebe's parents have been talking, reading, and playing with her since she was born, and it shows.

Phoebe has learned that when she wants something, whether it's a cup of milk, another song, or to go outside, it works best to use words.  A plaintive wail will only garner lots of guesses as to what she wants, whereas "more juice" (even if it comes out "moh zhu") gets better, faster results.  Her vocabulary is large, giving her an ever-increasing arsenal of nouns, verbs, and adjectives, and she employs it effectively.  She greeted the snow, pronounced my husband's legs "hairy," was able to get me to sing songs and play games over and over, and earned a huge grin from me every time she said my newly-learned name.

Thanks to her parents and her caregiver talking with her every day, Phoebe will have a strong and useful vocabulary by the time she starts Kindergarten at age 5.  Knowing lots and lots of words, and being able to use them, will allow her to understand and communicate with her teacher, learn to read more easily, write fluently, and have an excellent chance of being a successful student - in Kindergarten, in 3rd grade, and beyond.

Words are tools.  The more you have, the better equipped you are to do well in school and in life.

And if you can wow folks with words like wan, dromedary, miniature, and hairy along the way - well heck, so much the better!


  1. I remember a brief phase of being able to freak my little sisters out with the words, "Your epidermis is showing." Strangely, our parents just laughed. :)

  2. Yes, I remember saying that! Heh...

  3. In third grade, I used to delight in asking my classmates if they'd like to "perambulate" with me, while waggling my eyebrows suggestively. I'm sure they thought I was suggesting something obscene!

    Another grade school word prank: I enjoyed confusing people by answering that I felt "copacetic" whenever they asked how I was doing.

  4. Episode one reminds me: I would use the word "grow'-ta-skew" in 1st or 2nd grade. I had learned it from Nancy Drew mysteries but never heard anyone say it aloud (other than to correct me) until my second year at Harvard!

    I also definitely said "oo'-ni-kew" and knew from books exactly what it meant, and that it had lots of synonyms, such as that word "you-neek'" that my parents would sometimes say. =)

    Another words memory is going on a car trip to Usemity with my parents. I kept looking for road signs to see if we were almost there, but as time passed we only drew nearer to some place called Yosemite.

    Episode two reminds me of my long brother, at aged 4, angrily saying, "You... you... you SCIENTIST!!!" when I had teased him too much.

  5. I STILL mispronounce words that I see all the time in books but never hear.