Thoughts and Words: the Chicken or the Egg?

Oct 01, 2013 | Posted by Andrew Pudewa

by Andrew Pudewa

One of the few criticisms of IEW’s checklist-based approach to teaching style runs something like this: “Students’ writing can sound ‘forced’ or ‘awkward’ when they are ‘required’ to ‘add’ an adjective or adverb that just doesn’t belong, and in fact, their writing ‘would sound better’ without it.” Modern journalists and editors have taught us that good writing is clear, succinct, and concise, suggesting that any word not actually necessary makes the writing worse. (Of course by these modern standards, neither a Dickens nor a Brontë would be published today!) Therefore, it is reasonable that modern teachers and parents might question our methodology, and I would be the first to admit that sometimes students produce awkward writing when wrestling with words. But is that necessarily a bad thing?

What these critics miss is our real purpose. While they are looking at the product, viewing product as the method to create ability, we are thinking about the process, realizing that it is this very process that builds a foundation upon which a greater product will be possible in the end. I want kids to wrestle with words, and I realize that a bit of awkward usage will be a side effect, much the way a few out of tune notes and unsteady rhythms are side effects of learning to play the violin. Paradoxically, we want to encourage experimentation but cringe if the verbal experiment goes awry. We want children to develop a broad vocabulary but only if they use words in a perfectly appropriate way. This is an unreasonable expectation. If what we want is for children to fall in love with words, we must let them play with language!

When we provide children with word lists, synonym lists, and checklists to compel the use of these tools, we are essentially giving young writers the LEGO® bricks of language along with little diagrams to suggest methods of assembly. However, we shouldn’t be surprised if the child produces something different than what we expect, for in doing so, he has embraced the words and exercised a bit of originality. Awkwardness is not the enemy; it’s a symptom of budding creativity. Usually, this helps the student get excited about words and about writing. In essence we teachers and parents are building their linguistic limestone, nurturing in them the raw stuff from which a better writer can be carved in the future. But we are actually doing even more than that—we are building tools for thought.

A child writes a book report: "This is a very interesting book, because the characters are very interesting, and the author describes them in a very interesting way. The plot is also fascinating, with many interesting twists and turns. Since this is such an interesting book, everyone who reads it will enjoy it. The End." We may groan, but we don’t see the real problem. Saying something like “You shouldn’t use the word ‘interesting’ so many times” will have no effect. The reason he is limited in his analysis is because he is limited in his vocabulary. Give him more words, and he can think more thoughts! Give him a critique vocabulary with words like “epic, saga, mystery, tragedy, novel, hero, villain, foil, convincing, consistent, lively, overly evil,” etc., and you will now give him tools with which he can categorize and compare the characters, setting, plots, and messages. Word lists aren’t merely a convenience; they provide building blocks for better thinking! And they aren’t just temporary brain expanders—their effect is lasting, for when a word hops off the list and into the brain and out the fingers and onto the student’s paper, he’s actually moving that word from his passive to his active vocabulary.

It is the task of the writer to find the perfect words with which to express the thought, but it is the task of the teacher to provide the student with the words that make the very thought possible. You see, it really is not possible to think—or at least to crystallize and communicate—a thought without the words to think it in! And not so surprisingly, one can draw a direct correlation between the sophistication of a civilization and the grammar and vocabulary of its language. Having more words makes more complex thinking possible!

So if you are teaching children, remember that every day your primary goal is to provide them with eggs of vocabulary, from which the chickens of inventive thinking are certain to hatch. And don’t be afraid of the occasional creative word experiment (which may sound awkward to you but is an essential part of learning to play with and love language) because in learning a skill like writing, process trumps product.


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© 2013, Institute for Excellence in Writing, L.L.C.
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