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What's in a word?

By Patrick Lashmar October 05, 2015

Building word sense is a lifelong process. Words are like pieces of a puzzle: they carry traces of the past, and are touchstones for the future. We need to know how each piece fits into the puzzle of the English language. As you read this introduction, some words in our culture are disappearing, and some are being invented. The more we know about words and how they work, the more we can adapt to the changes that language will hold for us in our lifetime. Language is always shifting as the world changes.

One word can have a dozen meanings, depending on how it is being used. The letters ough can be pronounced in a variety of ways, depending on the word containing them. There are words that are spelled the same but pronounced differently, and words that are spelled differently but pronounced the same. The English language has a complicated history, and words have been borrowed and adapted from dozens of other world languages. Some words follow a careful spelling pattern, while others seem to follow no pattern at all. And now we have technology with spell checks and dictionaries right at our fingertips. But how quickly a word we thought we knew can trick us, even fooling the computer!

And yet somehow we make sense of the English language, harness its power in our speaking and reading and writing, laugh at its incongruities, and play with its sounds and patterns. We hope the activities in this book will help you to see words in new ways, so that you can explore the puzzles of how words work, notice patterns that recur, roots that help you spell other connected words, expressions that trick the eye and the ear, strange combinations of letters and sounds that surprise us, and words that touch our hearts.

Language is not usually a solitary activity. We use language to communicate with others. Accordingly, you may want to work with a partner or two during some of the activities. Share your knowledge; pass on your insights. You may want to take a day or two to complete an investigation. You might want to do some research or ask a family member.

Words matter, and the more you know about how words work, the better you will become at using them.
Learn more about working with words with your students by clicking on the resources below.

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