Be a Word Nerd!

Beth Melton

I am a self-proclaimed word nerd. What does that mean? It means that I am unapologetic about my love for looking up the etymology of words, doing crossword puzzles, and wondering about the intricacies of how English works. Are you a word nerd? If not, you should be! No matter what subject you teach, your enthusiasm for language will translate into students' enthusiasm for learning and inquiry. Not to mention that student word nerds can use their language skills to sift through challenging content and self-teach new vocabulary across content areas. So, how can you become a word nerd and model this mindset for your students? Here are a few tips:

1. Be curious about language. Look for opportunities in your classroom and in your own life to ask questions about language - Why are there 3 spellings of too/to/two? Why does the c in city sound like an s while the c in cat sounds like a k? Why do flammable and inflammable mean the same thing? Is the word character related to the word act? Questions like these will spark a spirit of inquiry in your and your students' lives. Before you can be curious in this way, you have to understand that (despite the common myth) the English language is largely predictable. While it is not as transparent as a language like Spanish, if we take into account the origin of words, the complex spelling rules of English, and a word's meaning and part of speech, then only 4% of words are truly irregular (and most of them are common everyday words, not more difficult content-specific words). You can learn more about the regularity of English in How Spelling Supports Reading: An Why It is More Regular and Predictable Than You May Think.

2. Model self-teaching strategies for students. When students come to an unknown word, we want them to be able to use their background knowledge about English (the history, spelling rules, and word meanings) to both decode (read) the word and comprehend (understand) it. We have to help students start to recognize the meaningful parts of words (called morphemes) and then apply this knowledge when they encounter unknown words. We can model and practice this skill with students. Watch this video of a 5th-grade classroom to understand what word inquiry might look like.

3. Embed word nerdiness into all content areas. Inquiry about language is not just for English class. The content of social studies, science, math, music, art, etc. is rich with great vocabulary. We can help students access these difficult and important words by giving them the tools to learn them independently - the tools of a word nerd. In this great video, two science teachers demonstrate what this might look like.

4. Keep learning. The coolest thing about being a word nerd is that there is always more to learn about language! Here are some great tools that will help you foster your inner word nerd:

  • Word Spy "The Word Lover's Guide to New Words," allows you to learn words you may have never heard before.
  • Online Etymology Dictionary (etymonline) allows you to look up word roots and gain clues into the origin of any word.
  • Word Central gives a "daily buzzword," allows students to build their own dictionaries, and has some great vocabulary and spelling games.

Now that you're a word nerd, I hope you pass your enthusiasm for language on to your students. And I know that you can fully appreciate the humor of this classic article