Sometimes advice from others is more difficult to bear than even slang.
When I was 15, I was riding in my father’s truck on our way to the feed store in town to pick up some corn seed for planting. I was chatting away, telling him some story about school or sports. He listened quietly. As we turned into the parking lot, he looked over at me. “Do you have any idea how many times you say ‘totally’ when you’re talking?”
My dad’s a straight shooter, and he doesn’t mince words. He was pointing out the obvious, which is how he rolls. But it still stung a little.
“Here’s the thing, honey,” he said. “If you fill your sentences with words you don’t need, it sounds like you’re not sure what you want to be saying. And if you’re not sure what you want to be saying, you’re not ready to say it.”
I argued with him, of course. “I am sure of what I want to say,” I told him. “It’s just how I talk. It’s how my friends talk, too. We all say ‘totally’ all the time. It’s just something we do. It’s how we talk.”
He pulled the truck into a parking spot, shifted into neutral, and pulled the parking brake. He shut off the engine and thought for a moment. “Well, it doesn’t work,” he said. “When you say ‘totally’ every fifth word, it’s annoying, and people stop listening.” Another pause. “Besides, it doesn’t make you sound very smart.”
I knew he must feel strongly about this, because of the many qualities my father values in people, being smart is one of the most important. He didn’t like it one little bit that I sounded unintelligent.
So I began paying attention to myself as I spoke, and sure enough, I was saying totally a lot. And it made me sound like a ditzy, overly dramatic little girl rather than the person I wanted to be—someone who was insightful, funny, capable of effective communication, and smart. I made a conscious effort to eliminate totally from my vocabulary.
It wasn’t the last time my father pointed out when I’d fallen into a bad habit with my speech and conversation, in part because he pays attention to that sort of thing, and in part because he’s not afraid to point it out. In college, he told me I was overusing like. In grad school, he heard me overusing literally. He said, “When you say, ‘I am so thirsty I am literally going to die,’ you’re doing two things that you shouldn’t—overusing a word you don’t need, and using it incorrectly.” Pause. “Because you are not, in fact, going to die.”
It’s easy to fall into bad patterns of speech based on the habits and patterns of those around us. I’ve been susceptible to this my whole life; it’s an ongoing fight I have with myself. I didn’t become immune to it simply because I largely eliminated totally, like, or literally from my vocabulary. I still have to pay attention and keep working at it.
Just last week, I presented at our state’s administrator conference. As I spoke, I listened to myself and was dismayed at how many times I said um when I was searching for the right word to put into my presentation. I made a conscious effort to stop.
I don’t know what new slang habit I will pick up, but I’ll continue to pay close attention to my patterns of speech. Being an effective communicator requires a constant readjusting of what we say and how we say it.
This week we look at ways to integrate word study naturally into workshop routines. Plus more as always — enjoy!
Contributor, Choice Literacy
Long an avid reader, Jennifer Schwanke has worked as an educator for 15 years. She taught middle school language arts for six years before moving into administration at both the middle school and elementary level. Jen enjoys thinking of more effective ways to present literacy to students at these vulnerable ages. You can find her latest thinking at her Leading and Learning blog.
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Max Brand describes how word observations can work as powerful minilessons in elementary classrooms:
Maria Caplin is discouraged at the low level of transfer of new vocabulary in her fifth graders’ writing, so she makes some changes in her classroom:
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In this week’s video, Katrina Edwards demonstrates a daily word work activity with her first-grade students, where they use oral and kinesthetic routines to master new words they should “know by heart”:
Tara Barnett and Kate Mills find the key to middle school students attending to new vocabulary during read-alouds is to have students choose the words:
Stella Villalba explains why focusing on rhyming words is crucial for young English language learners:
In a bonus video, we present part 2 of Christy Rush-Levine’s group discussion of fact and fiction with eighth graders:
New PD2Go: Gail Boushey (of “The Sisters”) leads a small-group lesson on vocabulary. In the debrief following the lesson, Gail talks with Joan Moser about vocabulary instruction, and the importance of fostering independence in students when it comes to noticing and learning new words:
This video and workshop guide fulfill Common Core State Standard ELA-Literacy L.2.4: Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases based on grade 2 reading and content, choosing flexibly from an array of strategies.
That’s all for this week!