How to Show Students that Word Choice Matters

How to Show Students that Word Choice Matters
Kara Wyman, MEd April 18, 2017

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It’s easy to mark up students’ papers with circles and write “WC” or “Word Choice” to encourage stronger verbs and adjectives. But how do we get them to see the value in choosing words wisely? Here are some ideas to expand students’ minds and improve their writing:

Show the shift in meaning

Looking closely at synonyms by themselves can help students think about subtle yet important differences between words that may seem similar at first glance.

Try putting students in small groups and asking them to rank a list of words from one extreme to the other — such as from adore to detest or quiet to boisterous. Talking about synonyms and antonyms shows students how meaning shifts gradually or dramatically based on the connotation of a chosen word.

Demonstrate the power of word economy

Sometimes students feel pressured to “fill the page” or write a required amount. That mindset often leads to stories and essays filled with overused words and sentences that are far from concise. So give students writing exercises that require brief yet meaningful prose. Try this four-step exercise:

  1. Ask students to bring a photo that represents a positive childhood memory. Give them five minutes to describe that memory in writing.
  2. Tell them to cut it down to exactly 50 words, making sure they still convey the emotion and the important details of their memory.
  3. Have them share with a neighbor and see if the neighbor has questions or is unclear about what happened in their peer’s mini-memoir.
  4. Then ask students to trim it down further — to only six words. By the end, they will be thinking much more critically about the power of each chosen word.

You can find a variety of resources online for six-word stories and six-word memoirs. After doing this exercise, students can appreciate these very short but often thought-provoking pieces. Most famous is the legend of Ernest Hemingway’s six-word story: “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.”

Highlight the impact of specific synonyms

When writing or revising, students often pick the first synonym they see in the thesaurus without thinking about how it will influence the overall meaning or message they are trying to communicate.

One way to help students think about choosing synonyms carefully is to have them compare a passage from a classic novel to a more contemporary version of that passage that’s full of synonyms. They will quickly see how synonyms can alter the flow of a passage and its meaning.

Discussing the difference between synonyms like “saunter” and “walk” or “charming” and “seductive” will help them see why it’s important to take time to choose the right words.

After asking students to analyze the feelings and images each passage evokes, have them come up with their own version that still modernizes the text but also preserves its intended meaning.

Use mood to dictate word choice

The narrator’s mood can have a great impact on a story. Students can better understand this by rewriting a simple passage. It can start something like this: “My friend lives in a fancy house.” Instruct students to revise it by using synonyms that convey the narrator’s mood.

If you tell students the narrator is jealous or in love with somebody, then they will need to find synonyms that suggest how the narrator really feels without adding a bunch of words. That sentence could be changed to “My classmate lives in a pretentious mansion” or  “My soul mate lives in an ornate house.” Either way, it shows how changing a couple of keywords alters a sentence, and possibly an entire story.

Kara Wyman has a BA in literature and a MEd from the University of California-Santa Barbara. She has worked with adolescents for a decade as a middle school and high school English teacher, the founder and director of a drama program, and a curriculum designer for high school and college courses. She works with 13- to 19-year-old students as a project manager of a nonprofit organization.

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