“By words we learn thoughts, and by thoughts we learn life.” –Jean Baptiste Girard
I have a question for you.
Which comes first? Thoughts or words?
I would argue that words must first be present in order to form thoughts. The more complex your vocabulary is, the more complex your thoughts can be.
As a writer, I purposely create word lists for each project I am working on. These are strong or descriptive words, specifically gathered to not only generate new thoughts but also to better articulate old ones. A single word or phrase may take me off on an unexpected thought tangent, or it might help me see something from a different perspective. It might enrich or expand my thinking, or make it more nuanced and pointed.
For instance, when I was writing the picture book biography, Monet Paints a Day, the story of painter Claude Monet going out every day to paint beside the ocean, I created a list of water or ocean words. My intention wasn’t necessarily to use these words in my writing, but instead to help me think about and capture mentally the sights, sounds, and power of the ocean in order to more fully understand what Monet was experiencing. I read articles about the beach where he painted, read poems about the ocean, even looked at ocean videos. Anywhere I saw a descriptive ocean word I added it to my list.
When I wrote Cowboy Slim, the story of a cowboy who used his poetry to stop a stampede, I had fun collecting, not only descriptions of ranching culture and landscape but also authentic cowboy lingo that carried with it a wide-open, colorful way of seeing the world. I read books about cowboys, watched Westerns, and read lots and lots of cowboy poetry. All of this additional reading added to my knowledge of the setting, story and character I was trying to create.
I don’t know where I got this idea of creating word lists for specific writing projects, but it definitely helps me as a writer.
I was inspired to use this technique in the classroom after I read an article many years ago about a high school teacher disappointed with the quality of the written lab work her students turned in. In response, she began to hand out a list of words with each assignment. These were not science words, but a list of related, strong verbs and the student scientists were required to use a certain number of them in their lab reports. The teacher soon noticed that as the students incorporated the words she’d given them, not only did the level of their writing go up, but the level of their thinking did as well.
Inspired, I started to look for ways to create and/or use word lists with my students.
I began to share how and why I created the word lists for my own writing projects and students were encouraged and given time to generate lists for their writing. We also started collecting words to be used when doing any kind of reflective writing. Adding words like speculate, hypothesize, and insight to a growing list throughout the year was a relatively easy way to prompt different types of student thinking, pushing it in directions it might not otherwise have gone.
As teachers, we are always trying to raise our students’ ability to think and to express themselves. Generating words lists is a positive step in that direction.