September 9, 2009
Vocabulary is one of the topics that Cassidy and Cassidy listed as hot in Reading Today. Vocabulary should always be a hot topic in that it forms the foundation of knowing and learning anything. A typical direction that educators take when a topic is hot is to think of lessons and materials and curriculum. These things are part of the solution but an additional resource lies in the everyday talk of classrooms. Language is the medium of human interaction and, like any human context, language fills classroom life.
As teachers, we are the ones who control the language in classrooms. In this capacity, we often overuse particular words—“listen up,” “clean off your desks,” “check that your name is on your paper.” A linguist named Zipf (1935) described a phenomenon that you’ll notice is true, if you were to get a transcript of the talk in your classroom over a day: Most of the words that people use in their conversations over and over again are short and come from the same, very small layer of the 606,000 words in English. Overall, this vocabulary is much less rich and varied than the vocabulary of writing. When teachers use a rich vocabulary in everyday events, students have a model and resource that they may not have in other life contexts.
In presentations to teacher groups, I’ve often commented on the availability of everyday events in classrooms as a source for enriching the quality of language—alternative words for lining up (e.g., form a queue) and check that your name is on your paper (e.g., scruntinze). I got a great response from teachers for this idea but many wanted more examples, not only of the events in classrooms but also of the alternative words that could be used. Out of these requests, Exceptional Expressions for Everyday Events (or E4), was born.
For the 2009-2010 school year, we’re going to provide 30 E4 vignettes—an E4 that can be used as the basis for each of 30 school weeks.
As the project is developing, I’m finding that there is more and more information to include—idioms where appropriate (another topic of importance about which I’ll be writing in the future), sometimes antonyms, possible ways of interacting about the words, and so on. As teachers, you’re free to use these words and ideas in your classrooms. We’re providing the E4s in a format so that you can project them in your classrooms.
If you have suggestions for E4 vignettes—or, better yet, if you have developed one or more, please send them to The same goes for samples of student work (e.g., a class book on a cluster of words from an E4). If your vignette or products are included on the website, we’ll send you one of the literature books that is featured on a quarterly Freddy’s Favorites.