Wednesday, February 13, 2013

On Challenging Words

Spectrometer, assembly, operations, basalt, meteorite, satellite, communicate, atmosphere, hematite, mineral, jarosite, sulfate, surveyor, orbiter, reconnaissance, thermal, emission, aeronautics, navigation, panoramic, phyllosilicates, abrasion, silica…

Are these words that you think will pull kids into a book and get them excited about science or space exploration?  I think not. But they are words that were absolutely essential to telling the story of the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity.  I think one of the biggest challenges in writing nonfiction for children, especially science, is how to introduce very sophisticated, sometimes technical, words to young readers without intimidating or losing them.

With the Common Core’s emphasis on integration of knowledge and increasing text complexity, I thought it might be interesting to explore some techniques that I use to handle challenging words.

Start slowly: I deliberately try to avoid throwing a lot tough word in the beginning of my books. Instead I try to grab readers so that they won’t give up when they hit something challenging. So The Mighty Mars Rovers opens with a page about life on Mars (Martians…that’s a word kids know and love). Chapter one introduces scientist Steve Squyres as a boy who gets a telescope for Christmas and later watches the Apollo landing. I don’t really start hitting readers with the tough stuff until I describe the making of the Mars rovers in chapter two, starting on page 16.

Space it out: If possible, I try to spread out the most difficult words, so kids aren’t reading a bunch of technical terms all at once.

Follow with short definitions: When I introduce a tough word, I try to follow it with a quick definition, something as short as possible. (I describe a Microscopic Imager as a cross between a camera and a microscope.)

Define and define again: For a really challenging word, especially one that is central to understanding the story, I will define the term not just on the first mention but the next several times as well. Sometimes I use the same definition; sometimes I offer different ways for kids think about the word.

Use visuals: If I can show a reader what a word means with a photo or graphic, I do. There is no better way for kids to absorb the importance of silica on Mars than showing a photo of silica uncovered by a dragging rover wheel with a caption that explains its significance.

A spoonful of sugar: If there is a funny or clever way to define something, I do. Take one of the tools on the rovers. I wrote:  “The RAT was not a furry gray creature, but a rock abrasion tool, a drill to bore holes into soil and rock.” When I talk about land deformation in my volcano books, I describe how magma swelling underground is like a mole pushing up a lawn. (These examples makes me wonder why furry mammals keep ending up in my hard-science books.)

I often include a glossary. I know glossaries are important. But my hunch is that a glossary is not the way most kids learn the difficult words in a book.

What do I think is really the key to helping kids handle sophisticated vocabulary? Amazing, gripping, can’t-put-it-down books that don’t dumb down the language. I really believe that kids who are captivated by a story will not let a five-syllable word stand in their way. And as they are swept away by a fascinating true story, they will absorb some rich, challenging vocabulary as they go.

I hope I’m right because my next Scientist in the Field book, which comes out later this year (Eruption: Volcanoes and the Science of Saving Lives,) includes these doozies:  Dormant, tectonic, lahar, pumice, pyroclastic flow, seismograph, spectrometer (again, can you believe it?)…

How to best handle challenging words will be an issue I face in other books I’m working on, so I want to toss out a few questions:

For the writers out there: How do you handle challenging vocabulary in your books? I would love to learn more ideas and techniques….

For teachers and other readers: What do you think writers of nonfiction can do to help readers master tough words? What works? What doesn’t?

I’d love to hear from you!

Elizabeth Rusch


Susan E. Goodman said...

Good post. This is a challenge, isn't it? I think you have made excellent suggestions, ones I often do myself--not just for individual words, but also for complex concepts. I also find that how I try to go about defining things often depends upon the style of the book. If it's a more lyric text or an exciting narrative tale, I try to go for a short and sweet solution (and glossary, of course) that doesn't disrupt the flow.

Other times and in books that are more humorous or "informal," I sometimes use one technique that you didn't mention. I stop the action completely and basically say, this is a hard one, let's take some time to get this idea across. Explaining why there is microgravity in space when there is gravity everywhere, for example. Or in my book, SEE HOW THEY RUN, explaining the electoral college. At one point, in my draft, I wrote for my own sake, "Do you have a headache yet? Imagine how it feels trying to explain this to you. But hang on, we're not done..." I left it in the final text. A little humor helps the medicine go down.

Barbara Kerley said...

Great post, Liz.

It also occurs to me that kids come to a better understanding of a scientific term from the very fact that it's being introduced in a story--so they get to see, for example, a scientist using the Microscopic Imager to do something. The story itself illustrates the definition, in action, as it were.

Thanks for sharing your tips!

Diane said...

Great Post. I teach remedial middle school reading as my side gig. All of my students read below the 4th grade level. I think it would be helpful when giving definitions to make sure that the words are put into syllables, and also important if show prefixes and roots with their origins. It will help the teachers who sometimes forget they are teaching reading too. Thanks for your tips!