Over the last decade, a term has entered the lexicon of scholars who study vocabulary development—word consciousness. Word consciousness is characterized by knowledge of words. For example, recognizing that many words have different meanings (i.e., that they are polysemous) is evidence of word consciousness. But word consciousness is much more than knowing about words or even knowing many words. Word consciousness is also a disposition—an appreciation of words and an interest in them. The ears of students who are conscious of words perk up when they hear as their teacher reads aloud “His long chin faded into an apologetic beard.” (Tuck Everlasting, Babbitt, 1975, p. 17) or “The house felt as lifeless as a tomb.” (The Half-A-Moon-Inn, Fleischman, 1980, p. 10).
Researchers have shown that word consciousness is something that develops in classrooms where teachers themselves are conscious of words. Judith Scott, in collaboration with a group of teacher-researchers, implemented a project called the Gift of Words. The emphases of teachers in the project varied. Some used literature circles as the context for developing word consciousness, while others concentrated on their students’ use of rich vocabulary in writing. While the emphases differed, several processes were similar. Trade books written by authors who use unusual and picturesque vocabulary were prominent in the classrooms. Further, these phrases and words were the source of group and class discussions. Discussions might focus on the various synonyms that an author uses for a known concept (e.g., apologetic rather than sorry; idle or languid rather than lazy). Words and phrases were posted in classrooms to remind students of interesting vocabulary.
After viewing artifacts of student work and achievements, Scott and her colleagues concluded that teachers were able to influence their students’ word consciousness. Students developed in understanding about the appropriateness of words in different registers such as an academic setting relative to a conversational one. Teachers also reported that their students were more willing to take risks with new words. In writing and in speech, students experimented with words that they had not used before the project. Students increased in their interest and use of vocabulary. These teachers had truly given their students the gift of words.