(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)
Q: Our fifth-grade son has "writer's block," and his teacher says he should expand his vocabulary. Can you suggest useful worksheets and online vocabulary drills?
A: Children's author Ralph Fletcher says vocabulary building is all about helping students fall in love with words.
Nothing will kill a budding love for lexicography like handing your son some boring worksheets. Help him fall in love with words by finding joy in learning new words with him. Try these teacher-tested suggestions:
-- Dinner served with words! Family dinners have positive social and academic influences on kids; having a daily discussion that allows them to hear new vocabulary is one of them. Choose topics to discuss at each meal (such as a recent school event or plans for a family vacation) and ask everyone to weigh in.
Model and encourage rich vocabulary.
For example: "To plan our vacation, let's look up state and national parks within a 200-mile radius of where we live. A radius is the distance from the center of a circle to its edge. On a map, we will estimate a distance of 200 miles from our house and draw a circle around it. Then we will pinpoint and investigate parks we could visit."
Encourage dialogue, but even if kids don't chime in, don't worry. They're still absorbing the words and making them their own.
-- Let pictures launch a thousand words: Find great images from "photo of the day" websites or calendars to get kids talking. A photo of diver encountering a shark generates words like scuba, equipment, adventure, conditions, saltwater, gear and so on, and piques interest in a wondrous ocean species.
-- Have some pun fun, and kick off word play.
"I found 'Pun and Games: Jokes, Riddles, Daffynitions, Tairy Fales, Rhymes, and More Word Play for Kids' by Richard Lederer (Chicago Review Press, 1996) at a yard sale. My son thinks it's crazy-funny," says Anita Burnham, a California math teacher. "We play word games in the car, from how many homonym pairs we can think of in a minute (prey-pray, rain-rein, slay-sleigh) to 20 Questions. We try to 'out pun' each other, too, to keep it fun."
Find word fun in portmanteaus and eggcorns, says Brenda Power, founder of the teacher website Choice Literacy (choiceliteracy.com).
A portmanteau combines two words and their meanings into one new word. Some trendy examples are snowmageddon, emoticon and frenemy.
"Discovering a new portmanteau is like finding a buried treasure in a text," Power says. "An eggcorn is a substitution for a word or phrase that may shift its meaning, but still makes sense in the context and is usually accidental on the part of the speaker."
Think cold slaw for cole slaw or bread and breakfast for bed and breakfast. Go egghorn hunting at eggcorns.lascribe.net.
While your son's teacher has identified weak vocabulary as the source of your son's "writer's block," I'll bet that there are other contributing factors. Children's author Fletcher has a book for young writers, "A Writer's Notebook: Unlocking the Writer Within You" (HarperCollins, 2003), which will give your son techniques to add to his writer's toolbox.
Better understanding the writing process will motivate him to fall in love with words.