Saturday, December 24, 2016

Using Language and Teaching Word Choice

This past semester, I have worked to encourage my senior speech students to sincerely take part in their learning by creating a dialogue about what they want to learn. Getting them to step beyond simply wanting to “speak well” or “be less afraid of public speaking,” has been a challenge. Open-ended questions and assignments that require crafting on the part of the student are two elements of education that students find difficult, but it has been my hope to change that this year for my students. One lesson that my students deemed important is word choice and how to use words to truly captivate their audience.

Choosing the right words to say to an audience is more challenging that most speakers realize. Connotative meanings of words can bear a great weight on how an audience reacts and interprets a message. At the same time, I often find that when students are intentional with wording, they often become wordy or their language is abstract, thus making a message that is intended to sound intelligent, unintelligible. In an attempt to reinforce word choice during my speaking for real audiences unit (special occasion speaking), I incorporated a few activities to help students understand how to be intentional, economical, and purposeful with their words.

1. Write Six-Word Memoirs

Featured in SMITH Magazine, the six-word memoir changes students to be thoughtful with their words and to paint a vivid picture using only limited words. In such a short message, students learn that every word matters and every word can be used to paint a picture and reveal something significant about their messages and themselves. My example: Math nerd loves English. Sorry, Mom. (Both my mom and brother are former math teachers turned administrators. Math and science are far more prevalent subjects of study for my extended family as well. When I told my mother that I wanted to be an English teacher instead of a math teacher, I nearly broke her heart).

2. Edit a Wordy Paper

Having students sit down and edit a paper is a valuable experience for many reasons. While this lesson feels more like an activity for a writing class than a speech class, teaching students to reread and re-evaluate their writing turns into more direct and compelling communicators in any form. If students work in pairs, they can then identify which words to remove, how to reconstruct sentences for effectiveness, and then analyze how their choices made the message clearer and more impactful.

3. Word Association

A single word can hold many meanings. Based on our perceptions, a word like “grade” can assume a positive tone because we hold happy memories about school and grades that we received in school. On the other hand, the word “grade” can seem ominous and daunting to a student who applies to college and his math grade is simply because he is taking a rigorous course that might be a little beyond his comfort zone. Playing word association games can create a dialogue among students as well to analyze the difference between denotative and connotative meanings of words. With caution, looking up a few (previously surveyed) words on Urban Dictionary can be a funny way to talk about how the meanings of words evolve and are truly given their meaning by the people who utilize them on a daily basis.

4. Gallery Walks

Selecting vivid pictures of people, places, or unique objects can help students learn to be more descriptive. In class, we often talk about the canned responses to the questions “How are you?” or “How was your day?” Society teaches us to respond in a polite, mildly positive manner. “Fine” or “good” are usually deemed acceptable and expected answers, however, these answers tell the initial sender nothing. As such, teaching students to describe, be specific, and take the time to formulate responses improves the daily communication that occurs among the people we interact with on a daily basis. When students spend time talking about a visual image, they begin to realize how much more interesting and relevant our conversations can be.

5. Listen to and Analyze a Speech


One of my favorite talks about the power of words is from a Toastmaster Competition. In his speech, the speaker illustrates how one word can influence a person’s whole life for the better and unfortunately for the worse. Encouraging students to listen to this speech or any speech with the intent of analyzing language and word choice can make them more reflect speech writers and deliverers. Examples provide students with standards with which to meet. While we often think to provide students who are writing papers sample thesis statements, paragraphs, or even whole papers, it is easy to overlook providing students with quality samples of speeches. We hear people talk every day, right? We should never forget that students need to be shown what a quality speech is. They need to understand how one is crafted and the role that words play in the making of a strong speech. This particular speech is one of my favorite for a lesson on word choice.

6. This I Believe Essays
After spending time discussing words and spending time formulating messages in concise ways, students are ready for a more substantial venture. One of my favorite activities to do with students is craft This I Believe Essays. These brief essays can be written in a day or can be more detailed. I introduce this activity by listening to a few samples from teens on the This I Believe website. Then, I challenge students to find a way to clearly and positive express why a specific belief is meaningful to them. Including a personal story or example, students are tasked with thoroughly crafting a message about their views to be shared aloud. These messages are then showcased and shared online. Each semester, I amazed at the thoughtfulness, reflectiveness, and various perspectives that are shared. When we empower students to value their ideas and utilize their words to share them, wonderful results can happen.


Our words are powerful. As teachers, what we say and more importantly, how we say it significantly impacts our students both consciously and subconsciously. As frequent communicators of messages both large and small, we must remember to use words well.
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