The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

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Words Have Meaning

I keep meaning to ask my students to take some time one of these mornings to jot down a few of the frequent words and phrases I use in my classroom. I am interested to see if they have picked up on the things that I feel like I say all the time. I do know, though, that there are at least a few phrases that my students have picked up on because they repeat them back to me or finish them when I start saying them!

One of these phrases is simply this: “words have meaning!” This idea has been on my mind a lot lately as different issues have made their rounds on major news networks, blogs, and social media. I have no desire to turn my blog about teaching into a social/political platform, so I won’t actually describe any of these issues. Suffice it to say that I have been driven to further consider the meaning of words and the power that is found in using our words.

When I think about this, I am especially concerned about the concept of saturation. What happens when we use certain words or phrases so often that they lose meaning? If we always describe something as awesome, at some point we have to admit that nothing is awesome. When a student comes up to me several times a day and says, “Mr. Valencic, I need to use the bathroom, it is an emergency” I am forced to conclude that it isn’t not, in fact, an emergency. (My typical response is that if it is always an emergency, then it is never an emergency.) Words have meaning and we should use them as they are intended. Of course, all that does not mean that I am a prescriptivist when it comes to language. I take a dual approach to language. On the one hand, words really do have meaning. On the other hand, our language is not static; it is dynamic–it changes. But we should acknowledge the way words are currently being used and make an effort to avoid using them either too much or in situations that don’t call for them.

In addition to wanting to avoid saturation, I make an effort to teach my students about the meanings of words, relying on etymologies, Greek and Latin roots and affixes, and how to interpret the meaning of a word from its context. When students comes across an unfamiliar word or phrase in a text, I want them to feel comfortable going to a dictionary to look it up or to examine the sentence and try to figure it out from the way it is used. If I hear a word being used improperly, I challenge students to examine how they used the word and to think about why they did it.

I don’t expect my fourth graders to become linguistic specialists, but I do expect them to think about the world around them, the circumstances they encounter, and the words they use. I want them to use their words wisely and in a way that will lift others and inspire them to know more, to do more, and to be more. It is a lofty goal, yes, but most of my goals are. They provide the foundation for the things I do as a teacher.

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