Say What You Mean: Part One

One September, I was creating a chart with my students about the things good writers do.  They said things like “good writers write long and strong” and “they add details.”  I was initially impressed.  These kids seemed to know some of the things it took to be a strong writer.  But then, I conferred with these same students.  When I asked, “what are you working on today as a writer,” I heard, “I’m writing long and strong.”

I recall asking many students, “How are you elaborating to strengthen your writing,” when I conferred with them during the first month of that school year.  I was told, “I’m adding details.”  “What kind of details?” I asked.  “Details.  I’m adding details,” I was told back in response as the child looked away from me.  My stomach twisted and my head hurt.  My students knew the right things to say, because they’d probably heard their teacher say those kinds of things the previous year.  However, they were speaking in jargon and didn’t have a clue what the jargon meant.

It’s easy to assume children will understand what we’re talking about when we speak.  Just last week, I found myself beside my daughter’s crib, kissing her good night, and telling her to “sleep long and strong.”  In fact, I had told her that several nights in a row since she was waking up in the middle of the night (wanting to play).  I walked into my bedroom, looked at my husband, and shook my head.  I told him that I told Isabelle to “sleep long and strong.”

He looked at me and asked, “What does that mean?”

I went into a long-winded explanation of how it meant that she should get nine – eleven hours of uninterrupted sleep, have pleasant dreams, and feel good in the morning.

“Why don’t you just say what you mean?” he asked.

I pondered.  “I should, I really should,” I replied.  “Sleep long and strong sounds silly, doesn’t it?”

He nodded his head.

I remember taking a summer course three years ago at the TCRWP’s Summer Writing Institute.  In that course, Lucy Calkins said, “If you want to be clear, use more words.”  She was referring to the way we talk with kids about mentor texts.  However, her advice of using more words for the sake of clarity holds true in nearly all aspects of working with (and raising) children.  If we want the children we teach, whether they’re in our classrooms or in our homes, to internalize and truly understand what we’re saying to them, then we must be clear and the only way to be clearer is to use more words when we’re talking to them.

While the jargon we use may make sense to us, it’s often unintelligible for people who are on the outside.  It takes longer to use more words, which helps us to be clearer.  And in today’s fast-paced world, we rarely have the time to say more.  However, if we want to get our message across to others, then we must say what we mean.

When I laid Isabelle down in her crib last night, I kissed her good-night and said, “Isabelle, I want you to have pleasant dreams tonight.  It would be great if you slept until 8 a.m., but regardless of the time you wake up, I want you to sleep long enough so you’re ready for our day tomorrow because it’s a busy one.”  I might have been a little long-winded, but at least I was clear.

Finally, later this week I’ll have a second post about precise language.  In that post, I will crack-open what it means to “add details” to student writing so we all have some additional things we can say to kids in lieu of telling them to “add more details” to their writing.