The accepted wisdom is that when teaching a topic you should display a list of words associated with the topic – especially when first introducing it. Why? To my mind, words are representations of concepts, so if you have no idea what the underlying concept is, the word itself is surely meaningless? Before anyone can learn terminology, they need mental hooks on which to hang the words.
However, there is no doubt that we need to ensure that pupils and students do understand, and use correctly, the appropriate terminology for a given topic. One way of testing their understanding, and giving you an insight into any misunderstandings, is to try a fiction approach.
When I was teaching, I used to make up short stories in which the terms relevant to the topic being taught were used. The students’ task was to identify the words and then decide if they had been used appropriately. I never actually used terminology wrongly, in case I inadvertently reinforced a misconception they already had. By “inappropriate use” I mean suggesting something which, though not wrong exactly, could be questioned. For example, the story might include a scene in which someone creates a list of names for badges using a word processor. Of course you can do that, but if you have a large list of names, and you want to apply criteria such as printing out girls’ and boys’ names separately, a word processor is unlikely to be the most appropriate tool.
I liked that idea, and it worked well. But yesterday I came across an idea which turns that one on its head: get the kids to write the story. The original idea may be found at Creative Copy Challenge. Intended as a means of stimulating the creative juices of (fiction) writers, the site mainly puts up lists of ten words selected randomly, your task being to work them into a story. It’s challenging, fun (in a masochistic kind of way), stories submitted by people are great to read, and the comments on the posts by Shane Arthur are kind. (To give full credit, I came across the site via an article by Ali Hale called The Secret to Writing Powerful Words, at the Men With Pens site.)
OK, so here is my variation on the theme. At a suitable point during the teaching of a topic, or at the end, give the pupils a list of 5 to 10 words which relate to the topic – the words that you would normally put on the whiteboard or wall as a glossary aid-memoire anyway, and ask them to construct a short story, how-to guide, script for a 30 second TV advert or whatever. If you have a class blog, do what they do over at Creative Copy Challenge, which is to post the words as an article, and ask readers to submit their stories as comments. That way everyone gets to see everyone else’s efforts, which paves the way, in an educational context, for an interesting class discussion and some peer assessment. A further variation would be to have the kids working on the assignment in small groups or pairs. Incidentally, you don’t have to use a blog: any means of collaborative writing will do, and as far as I know all Learning Platforms have such a facility.
I think that would be a great way of testing the kids’ understanding and, as I suggest, for you to gain insight into how they’re thinking, but in an enjoyable way. But don’t take my word for it. Pop over to the Creative Copy Challenge website and have a go yourself. Then decide if it might work in your classroom.