As a grade one and two teacher I loved the enthusiasm of the kids I taught. Their minds were open to anything new and interesting. Everything was filled with potential. Because I believed that language fluency was key to successful learning, we would spend a lot of time talking about words, playing word games and creating with words.
The walls of my classroom were always filled with the most recent evidence of our linguistic explorations. Chart paper would record all the homophones we had found, all the words we could use to describe the wind, all the happy and sad words we had discovered or a vocabulary related to the current topics under consideration. These were not static records. As a new word cropped up that could be incorporated into one of the lists, we would add it there and then.
My goal was to have children look closely at words, understand that words are both powerful and fascinating. At this young age, the ability to communicate clearly and with precision relies on them having a rich vocabulary. I wanted them to discover new words and experience making choices among words in order to find the best words to communicate their ideas. I wanted my students to build a practice of thinking and communicating with clarity and precision, an essential Habit of Mind.
For very young children, the process of looking at individual words can be complicated. We use words to express our thoughts. Let’s think for a moment about what ‘thinking’ actually is. It isn’t as straight forward as it sounds, because thinking is a very complex beast. Have you ever tried to write down what you are thinking? As you are thinking it? There is a constant stream of thoughts, some are words, some are images, some are sensations and they all mix together to create what is going on in our heads – thinking. And when I think of a thing there is no guarantee that my ‘thing’ is the same as your thing.
Asking a very young child to come up with a single sentence isn’t as easy as it first appears. We don’t think in sentences, there is no punctuation at all in our thoughts. Nor are there any spaces between the words when we think. To isolate a single sentence or individual word from a stream of thoughts can be daunting. They all work it out in the end, but we should make sure they have plenty of opportunities to practice. From the very beginning, the focus should always be on finding the best word, not just any word.
There are many ways to explore the relationships between thinking and language, ways which demonstrate the need to choose words carefully so that they communicate with clarity and precision. The key with each activity is to draw the children’s attention to the fact that we are carefully selecting words that give a clear and precise description of what we are thinking.
Start off with a straight forward, concrete noun such as ‘cat’. You can ask them to make a picture of a cat in their mind and draw it using their coloured pencils, crayons, or felt tip pens. Let them share their ‘mind pictures’ with one another and notice the differences – some are tiny, some are big, some are sleepy and purring, others are fierce, some are short haired, others are long haired and can be all sorts of different colours.
Choose any one of the pictures and ask the children how they would choose the right words so that someone who had never seen the actual cat or the picture would be able to have the same ‘mind picture’. As the children make suggestions, write these down in such a way that the cat picture and the words can become another chart to put on display somewhere in the classroom. This is an activity that can be varied in many ways for many different subjects. The important thing is to stress that we are carefully choosing words that are precise and clear.
I liked to use Big Books in my classroom. They were ideal for sharing our thinking. Seeking words that communicate with clarity and precision could direct our attention towards particular categories of words, particularly adjectives and adverbs. Using post-it notes, I would cover up the words we were going to focus on, and as we came to them I would ask the children to look at the pictures, think about what they already know, and then suggest what the word might be. I would then reveal only the initial letter of the word and again ask the children to predict what it might be. We know how important prediction is as a reading strategy, and we also know that the initial letter is the most important one in deciding on a word, so we are hitting a number of language and literacy targets with this simple activity. Finally, I would review the book we had just read, asking the children to look on each page for the special words that helped clarify the story – the words that made the language more precise.
Throughout all of this I never hesitated to use the words ‘precision’ and ‘clarity’. Very young children can cope with quite complex vocabulary so long as they have an appropriate context for it. Just ask any six year old about dinosaurs! When teaching the habit of Thinking and Communicating with Clarity and Precision for the first time, the Habits of Mind Animations provide great context for young learners. The animated videos explore each of the 16 habits in relatable ways with engaging characters. The extension lessons provide a valuable resource with print concepts and fluency passages, reinforcing essential vocabulary for understanding these complex ideas.
Communicating with clarity and precision is an important spoken language skill. I always encouraged my children to speak about what they were thinking, to explore ideas, and to listen carefully to one another.
Providing them with vocabulary choices early in a topic is essential as well, and so, as you ask them to tell the class about the season they like best, write the significant words they use on the board or on chart paper for future reference. Let’s imagine the season chosen is winter. At the end of the preliminary discussion you have the following words written where all the children can see them: cold, snow, rain, dark, mittens, sweaters.
The next step is to add some greater precision to those words as descriptors of winter. You might ask, “What does snow feel like? What can you hear if you walk through snow? What does it remind you of when you see it all over town? As the children provide more precise language you can develop a word map for them.
This kind of vocabulary extension can be done with any of the words initially suggested. You can then read a story or a reference book about winter and add any new vocabulary that appears before asking the children to compose their own stories, factual accounts, or poems about snow.
Finally, a reminder that almost everything you do in your classroom can be made into an opportunity to build vocabulary and focus on making good word choices. When a child tells you that his cat got out last night, you have an opportunity to ask, “Tell me a bit more about your cat” and help the children develop clearer descriptions. The power of the follow up question and a teacher with a white board pen, ready to write down new or interesting words, should not be underestimated. Fill your classroom with words, change them around frequently, make sure they come from the children’s experiences and pretty soon you will have students who are able to think and communicate with clarity and precision because they have the tools – they have the words.
Patricia Calton Buoncristiani has a wealth of classroom experience in the UK, Australia and the USA. For twelve years she was a teacher educator at Melbourne Teachers College in Australia and more recently has been an elementary school principal in both Australia and the USA. Together with her husband Martin Buoncristiani she has written two books: Thinking In A Digital World: Taking Our Kids Into the Deep End, Rowman and Littlefield, 2017 and Developing Mindful Students, Skillful Thinkers, Thoughtful Schools, Corwin, 2012