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Top tubes and sprockets, sparrows and wrens
Channeling kids' obsessions into precise writing
My daughter’s dad is a bike mechanic (and fellow word nerd). My daughter loves words herself, and at age two and a half could speak at length about cone wrenches, pumps, drop outs, training wheels, rear hubs, front hubs, pedals, rims, and chains. She points out road bikes, mountain bikes, fat bikes, cargo bikes, tandems, and bmx bikes. We have long, semi-technical discussions about how her dad could fix Curious George’s bike after its wheel gets bent on a rock. You know how this is: dinosaurs, trains, Harry Potter, horses – when kids find something, they get precise. Woe-betide any of us lay-parents who confuse an alicorn and a unicorn, or don’t know Hagrid from Hogwarts.
But! We can direct that enthusiasm and precision into writing practice. Maybe it’s just that our budding writers write a lot of train poems, or research reports about horses.
Or we can cultivate that precision with the idea of a lexicon:
What specific words do you get to use when you talk about horses? Are there words that have a specific meaning to horse-lovers that mean something else to the rest of us, like bit? Are there any really fabulous words, like hackamore or bronco?
Make a list of all the words relating to a field of interest. Then use those words to write something (we’ll call it a poem). It could be instructions, a description, a story, an opinion.
I use another variation of this idea that focuses on plants and animals. I think it is important for children to learn words to speak with precision about nature. I believe knowing the words sparrow and wren help us have a way to articulate and therefore truly see the differences between what so easily could be just a couple of little brown birds. So here’s what we do:
Every child picks an animal or plant, maybe one they’ve been working with in some other way, such as by making a field guide entry for it, or seeing it in the park.
I ask the kids to make a list of words associated with that creature, and to be as specific as they can: feather, beak, migration, flight, egg, nest, mud, daub.
Then I ask them to brainstorm a list of words that sound like the creature’s name, so swallow might generate hollow, swag, follow, flow, swan, swab, swill, swelter, willow, wallow, Wall Street, halo etc.
Then I ask them to write a poem – maybe an acrostic poem – about their creature, using their word lists as inspiration.
For an extra challenge, I encourage them to include one very unexpected word, like a word referring to machinery or pop culture.
This prompt was inspired by the book The Lost Words, by Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris, which you should go find right now. It’s a wonder-filled book of poems and art that seeks to call nature words – dandelion, acorn, fern – back into children’s vocabularies. Each poem is an acrostic that spells out an animal or plant’s name. It’s a huge, gorgeous book, an enchanting book, a powerful book. I love working with it with my students. There is lots of associated curriculum online, but even just reading it aloud does powerful work to link the wonder of words with the wonder of the wild world.