Attack of the Killer Thesaurus

killer thesaurusI’ve been working with a Year 6 class recently, some of whom just love to use the thesaurus. It’s the Holy Grail of writing, the golden chalice from whence all WOW words flow. Simply tip it over your work and – WHAM –  instant ‘Level 5’! (Although we’re not using levels, I know, I know…)

This is great. They are so enthusiastic about words and writing, and they are aware of their choices as writers. Here are some examples:

‘…but in the end we had a really acceptable day.’

‘The food was cordial too.’

‘He has a cape that waves behind him in the gust.’

It’s clear that all is not well in Grammar Land. These children are missing something.

If we tell them that a thesaurus is a good way to find synonyms/words that mean the same thing, children won’t appreciate that the words in a thesaurus aren’t always exactly that. The wonderful thing about language, and writing, is that words don’t mean the same thing – they are nuanced and specific and allow an incredible level of detail. Liberal thesaurus use without this understanding is a sure fire way to destroy their authorial voice and make them sound awkward.

Why does this happen? Because we spend too much time focusing on improving writing in terms of mechanics, not meaning. Complex words don’t necessarily make writing more clear or understandable. They don’t always transmit what you truly mean – especially if you aren’t sure of the meaning. How do we combat this attack of the Killer Thesaurus?

  1. Raise word awareness, so children are actively looking out for new and interesting words they haven’t come across before, outside of the thesaurus, in context. You could use our vocabulary collector worksheet to help with this:
  2. Do encourage thesaurus use, but balance ‘VCOP’ focused editing with editing for meaning, using strategies such as reading out loud, peer editing, sharing and giving a reason for their writing. If they know others will hear it, it starts to have real purpose.
  3. When encouraging thesaurus use, emphasise the subtle differences between words – nice, good, and lovely all mean slightly different things, and cannot be used in the same way. Show humorous bad examples and explore why they are wrong or sound odd.
  4. Find other methods to encourage vocabulary expansion – have a look at this research paper: 10 Research-Tested Ways to Build Children’s Vocabulary (from Scholastic by Nell K. Duke & Annie M. Moses) for some more ideas and advice. For example, making use of new words in context (not in isolation), reading to kids, encouraging talk and providing multiple exposure to words.

Those children who warm our hearts through their desire to make their words brilliant shouldn’t be discouraged. They are on the way, exploring, making mistakes, testing language. Let’s help them balance their love for new words with understanding the importance of meaning.

Highest Regards, (commendations, deference, compliments)

Reginald Write

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