Words are not just words: The Professor and the Madman

In the mid 19th century, Professor James Murray was developing the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). His system for compiling words involved volunteers from around the world sending him cards with information on each word in print, where it first occurred and how it is defined. Lo and behold, he began to notice one of his sources was not just productive but prolific. So, he decided to find out where this person was located. It turns out that Dr. William Minor, who had submitted over 10,000 words was a patient at the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Both a book and a film have been published depicting this story as it unfolded in The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of murder, insanity, and the making of the Oxford English Dictionary (Simon Winchester, 1998, New York: Harper Collins Publisher). OED is considered the most authoritative dictionary of words, tracing their origin and nuances of meaning. WRN is all about words, with teachers giving privilege to those they want students to learn and use in their writing. Not all words are equal, however, and not all words have deep carrying capacity for meaning. Words can be splashed like color, arranged in a sequence like music, and varied with intonations in speech. At the base of WRN are concepts, which are words that are abstract and provide a general notion that needs to be filled in with vocabulary words in defining them. Concepts are buckets that are broad and nuanced. Some examples of concepts include freedom, foundation, premise, personality, (main) idea, setting, era, proclivity, habitat, rhythm, and on and on and on… In WRN, teachers select materials for students to read that can range from literary works to biographies, poems, fiction, non-fiction, newspaper articles, and on and on and on…These materials are used to identify concepts with vocabulary words poured into them. Usually 2-5 concepts are sufficient and 5-10 vocabulary words can be identified for each concept. This system is activated so that, when students write responses to a prompt, these words are identified and highlighted. By privileging words, two benefits are provided. First, teachers can focus students in varying levels of specificity by guiding their writing. And most importantly, teachers can provide immediate feedback to students without having to score and evaluate their writing other than scanning responses to ensure sensibilities. This system is particularly applicable for English language arts with biographies and autobiographies. In such texts, three typical concepts include personal characteristics, time/era, and significant events. Biographies and auto-biographies are always about a person or significant people who come to life in the descriptions of them, the time/place where they lived, and in the outcomes or events that made them worthy of being published. Narratives also have a steady conceptual basis that may include characters (protagonists and antagonists), settings, plot, problems, solutions, climax, and suspense. Moral of this blog: Be selective and inclusive in targeting important words (concepts and vocabulary) that help structure the text for meaning/interpretation and are used to score student responses. Photo by Joshua Hoehne from unsplash.com

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