The Match That Starts the Fire - National Council of Teachers of English
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The Match That Starts the Fire

The following is by Alexandra Cavallo, who teaches English at Northern Highlands Regional High School in Allendale, NJ. It is excerpted from her full piece with permission from the blog Writers Who Care.


natural vocabulary: the match that starts the fireDuvantee, a junior and one of the brightest in his class, asked me to look over his college essay. I found that many of his sentences didn’t make sense due to word choice. He told me he had used the online thesaurus. When I asked what he meant by referring to his mother as his “primum mobile” he replied, “she’s like the match that starts the fire.” “Write that,” I said.

Students often do what Duvantee did, substituting obscure or fancy words for seemingly simple or boring ones. In doing so, they sacrifice their voice as well as meaning.  …  If students feel like they have to prove their intelligence to their teachers or a college admissions board every time they sit down to write something, it’s only natural that they will feel pressured to use accessible tools like the online thesaurus to pad their writing with words they feel are more “academic.” With such a strong emphasis on SAT words and college essays, we have trained our students to think their natural voices aren’t good enough for academic writing. …

What we can do

  • Encourage students to look up unfamiliar words they come across in their reading. This is how they will expand their vocabularies. …   When readers are purposeful about learning new words, they find more ways to implement them in speech, eventually bringing new words into their natural vocabulary.
  • Ask students to make an ongoing list of the words they like from their readings, and encourage students to work with those words, using them in class discussions, in their writing, and on their own. This way, they are making a decision to incorporate these words into their speech and writing.  …
  • Use “sophisticated,” subject-appropriate language with your students. Never dumb down your speech for them. If you use a difficult word, define it for them and continue to use it. Students will learn from this and start to use it themselves!  …

I’d like to do away with the notion that formal writing shouldn’t read like everyday speech; this mindset is holding our students back. I don’t want my students to feel like they have to take on some voice existing outside of themselves … With reading, vocabulary will come. A good teacher’s students will learn new vocab subconsciously. We should encourage our students to use language they are intimately familiar with.