Thursday, June 4, 2015


Using Small Words to Define Big Ideas

I am an xkcd fan! I am not nerdy enough to be good at math and science, but I am a language nerd which means I still enjoy all things nerdy.

I recently discovered he wrote a book called the Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words. The concept is similar to simple wiki, which explains things using a non-technical vocabulary. Although, unlike simple wiki he limited himself  to only using the 1,000 most common words and his drawings of course..

Thus, datacenters are referred to as computer buildings, tectonic plates becomes the flat rocks we live on, airliner cockpit controls are the things you use to steer a plane, and cells are referred to as the little bags of water you're made of.

You can see an example of this concept to the right with a plan of the Saturn V being described using only the most common, "ten hundred" words.

What's the connection?
How is this related to English class?  Here's my theory. Students are often overwhelmed by the vocabulary as much as the size of a text. So, why not, on occasion, have them really break it down.

Yes, knowing the literary terms: protagonist, foil, and hyperbole are important, but do they really know what they mean or are they regurgitating vocabulary you've covered.

You could do this with any vocabulary, but since I am in the midst of planning for next year literary terms springs to my mind. If you aren't on Summer break right now, maybe you would want to do this a review before the end of the semester exams come around.

1. Have students come up with a list of words they learned last year, or give them a list of words they should know.

2. Pass out a list of the top 1,000 words in English
  • If you are a tech savvy class you can send them to the link you want to use. I like wiktionary, but there are many others.
3. Have students define the assigned words using ONLY the tip 1,000 words.
  • I would probably do think pair share or pyramids here. 
    • Students start on their own, then share with a partner, then two groups of partners get together) etc.
4. Finally ask for volunteers and see how well their definitions fit? Did they define a protagonist as a good guy? Is that really accurate?

Use the Short Answer function for students to submit and vote for definitions
5. Collect the definitions of the words and on Socrative, postits, etc. have students consider which definitions they like best.

6. Make a "literary terms" dictionary (in the spirit of the assignment call it a "Book about Book Words." Keep it in the class library, or save it and have it available online. Either way students will now be able to consult and know the words you plan on using in class.

I like the concept of this activity for several reasons, but here are the big ones:

It uses critical thinking. Maybe they want to say dramatic irony is when "the audience knows something the characters don't" Audience isn't a word, so they need to think of how else they would describe them, "People who listen or read know things the people in the book don't know." Since I teach the ELL students this is also a great example of circumlocution.Which is the process we go through when we need to talk around a word.

I am sure you do this a lot with movie stars or book titles. You are talking to your friends about a great old movie you saw the other day and you can't remember the name. You don't just stop talking, you describe it, "It has that actress we both like from Gilmore Girls, but not Patty...and she falls in love with the guy from that Trident commercial who looks like your cousin." etc.

When students learn they can describe almost anything using these words, they should have more confidence writing and speaking in class. Plus, it gives you a chance to confirm if they do in fact understand the vocabulary.

What do you think? I'd imagine you spend most of your class time getting students to use bigger words, would you ever do an activity like this that used smaller words?

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