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Teaching Tips: Juicy Words and the Students Who Devour Them

by Lori Oster
February 7, 2012
It's inevitable. Every term a handful of my new students will linger after our first reading class to ask me the question: Will we have to do vocabulary this semester? In my own predictable teacherly fashion, I respond with a question of my own: What exactly do you mean by do vocabulary?

What typically follows is a description of that age-old vocabulary favorite: the word list. Students bemoan their experiences memorizing scads of words—taken either from texts read in class or from Lists of Very Important Words published by Very Important People—and capped off with a scored assessment of some kind. Now, I am not about to say that there is anything wrong with The Word List. Clearly, it must be working for somebody; otherwise I wouldn't meet so many students every year who have had experience with them.

What I am going to say is this: Isn't it time we help our students develop the same love of words that, in part, drives our own affection for reading? Isn't it time we let our students get a small taste of the lexical smorgasbord that is the English language?

Of course it is! I imagine many of us have created ways to help our students discover new words. Here is one approach that has worked very well with my students.

Juicy Words

First, I ask the students if they collect anything. Their responses range from the expected—baseball cards, coins, Coca Cola glass bottles—to the interesting—political campaign buttons, rare athletic shoes, and cars.

Then, we discuss the nature of collecting. Ultimately, everyone agrees that whenever we decide to start collecting something, we happen to see that something all over the place. Whereas before we decided to collect it, we rarely noticed that the thing existed. And, when we're after something to add it to a collection, it suddenly seems to have much more value.

And that's when I tell them they are going to become collectors of words. But not just any words—Juicy Words.

A Juicy Word is a word that has some real substance to it. Juicy Words are special, more so than your everyday, dried-out variety of words. Everyone has their own ideas about what makes a word juicy, and they vary based on our prior experience and exposure. We know a Juicy Word when we see or hear one because it is unfamiliar and interesting, or it might be familiar but we're not quite sure of its meaning.

As novice collectors, we begin slowly. First, I ask students to collect ten Juicy Words per week. They can source their Juicy Words from text or from speech. They write their words down in the back of their class notebook, as well as a note about where they found the word and how it was used. At the end of the first week, students share their favorite Juicy Word of the week with the class, and we discuss the process of becoming word collectors.

Then, we kick it up a notch. During Week 2, I ask students to continue collecting ten Juicy Words per week, and in addition, to identify their three favorite Juicy Words and to use them at some point. They can use them in writing or in speech, and of course, they have to develop a strong sense of the word before they do so. They take notes about how they use their words, and then they share their Juicy Word use with the class in a group I created on Goodreads.com.

In their Week 2 posts, students share their three Juicy Words, information about where they sourced each word, a brief explanation of each word's meaning, and how they used each word in real life. These reports often include funny anecdotes about how our students' friends respond to their use of Juicy Words—“I told my friend that her conclusion about a guy she barely knew was reductive, so she rolled her eyes at me and started calling me 'College Girl.’”

As the semester progresses, so do our collecting skills and habits. By Week 5, the students are using five of their Juicy Words per week, and collecting an average of 15—five more than the ten words that I require. The posts on our Goodreads group become more involved, as well. One week, students choose two of their Juicy Words and discuss how those words narrowed their sense of other words or concepts. Another week, they choose their favorite Juicy Word found so far— The Pride of the Collection—and do a small word study on it. They uncover its etymology, identify an instance where this word is the only word that could possibly do the circumstances justice, and create a family of words related to, but not quite the same, as their favorite word.

By the final weeks of the semester, the collecting of Juicy Words becomes a habit for most of my students. When I tell them during Week 1 that they will probably end the term with a “trophy shelf” of over 200 words, they don't believe me. When we say goodbye at the end of Week 16, most of them have far surpassed that number. They become true collectors of words. They learn to delight at finding a word that will enhance their current collection, and more importantly, they are excited and empowered to move forward and to continue growing their collections on their own.

As our last day of class ends I watch them walk away, confident that they will continue to collect words long after they've received their final grade for the Juicy Words Project. In short, they have become the Word Nerds that I always knew they could be.

As for me? I couldn’t be more proud.

Lori Oster teaches English at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, IL. When she's not in school, she spends her time reading and working on her young adult novel. You can visit her online at www.professoroster.blogspot.com.

© 2012 Lori Oster. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.
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