Wednesday, October 15, 2014


Keywords unlock our world.

The first thing that Google, Bing, Yahoo, or any other search engine requires is a keyword --the word that will get the ball rolling for finding the information, image, text, or item for which you are searching. 

The more precise the initial word or phrase, the faster and more closely the search will match your desired material. The more accurately you identify the key ideas, the fewer times you will need to repeat the same search. 

There are entire businesses and  digital tools, such as WordSmith , for finding just the keywords that are going to move your business’s homepage  or advertisement to the top of the search engine’s suggested links, giving you the retail advantage over competitors.

This same process applies in the non-electronic world as we use the indices and concordances in books.  We have to know what we are looking for—what word will get us to the page containing the information we want. 

So how do we determine that all important keyword? 

Correctly determining the main idea, the motif, the gist, the essence of what we are looking for is the key to  revealing the needed  magic word..

Keywords can also help us focus our attention in our work.

Teachers at Prospect School in Vermont begin collegial conferences designed to analyze students’ strengths, weaknesses and educational needs by identifying a keyword that has emerged as all data and  related conversation has been considered.  This is part of a process called Descriptive Review developed by Pat Carini.  

What keywords would emerge as you consider your students, your own children or adults that you know?

Words can create problems--words often arise that we all use, words that become buzzwords, but then change in meaning, become politicized, demonized, and/or emotionally charged--- and then as we use them, we no longer all mean the same thing.  

For example, formerly in education, the terms whole language, phonics, and readiness, and more recently, accountability and assessment , fall into this category.  

I deliberately no longer use the term whole language in conversation because it conjures up an image for some, of teaching whole class, for others, not teaching grammar and phonics, for others, just letting students read and write as they please, and for others still, the root of all of our current educational woes.  None of these meanings are accurate --or useful when having a discussion.  

 It is important to define and agree upon how we are using particular words for particular discussions.  It is important to decide what words mean not only in the broader sense, but in this particular moment.

We often ask students to define keywords-- they are all too familiar with the vocabulary sections of standardized tests.

Well Defined: Vocabulary in Rhyme by Michael Salinger presents accurate, yet humorous personifications  of  standardized test-worthy vocabulary words, as he explores the meaning of each term in short poetic stories.

In Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, Ray Williams examines what words mean, including their historical, political, and cultural meanings, and considers how they acquired their current connotations. Organized in alphabetical order, his “record of inquiry into a vocabulary” also notes how keywords are connected, derived, and dependent upon one another.  

Philip Nel and Lissa Paul deliberately applied Williams’s structure to current children’s literature in Keywords for Children's Literature.

We use key words when reading to gain insight into the writer’s train of thought and the internal structure of her writing.  

 Keywords move us along grammatically through what the author thinking. The author collaborates in this process, using therefore to signify she has come to a conclusion, first, last, after, before, to assist us in following her sequence.  When she makes comparisons, they are indicated by but, however, yet, unless, despite, and evidence for important points are labeled with because and since.  Continuation of earlier thoughts is indicated with and also, in addition, and so forth. 

How effortlessly we can travel through the writer’s mind and follow her logic with the assistance of such keywords. 

 Conceptual keywords further assist us in realizing, understanding, and connecting important concepts and ideas to each other to construct a conceptual framework of the writer’s thinking.  
For example, we cannot have a conversation about evaluation, example, we cannot have a conversation about evaluation, without also talking about assessment
How does the writer relate those ideas? What other words does the author connect?

Understanding the relationships and connections between words and concepts is crucial to learning and understanding. 

 In the classic picture book, The Important Book by Margaret Wise Brown,  young children can begin thinking about keywords and key ideas.
Identifying the important ideas in texts and figuring out what  the author wants us to know, as well as what is most meaningful to us, is a part of reading.  Although there may be many ideas and details related to a concept, there are usually ideas that are more important than others.This text  invites readers to consider what is essential in defining or describing something. For example she describes rain in this way:
The important thing about rain is
 that it is wet.
 It falls out of the sky
 and it sounds like rain,
 and makes things shiny,
 and it does not taste like anything,
and is the color of air.
But the important thing about rain is that it is wet.
Thinking in this way, forces students to compare and contrast, analyze and evaluate, consider what is essential and what is nonessential. They must clarify their thinking and articulate it to others, both verbally and in writing. This simple structure offers them an avenue in which to engage in this critical thinking work.

Finally, Blexbolex offers us thoughtful and fun ways to consider keywords  and related concepts in his books.   People and Seasons Seasons, both by the  French illustrator,present us with concepts linked in obvious ways, such as Mother and Baby, Man and Woman, Leaf and Caterpillar, but also challenges us to discern less obvious connections as we move through the pages. These seemingly simple texts and images will generate much discussion, regardless of age, as we seek to discover connections, patterns and deeper meanings.

Maria Popova's articles about both People  and  Seasons, on one of my favorite blogs, Brain Pick include many sample illustrations.

As writers, we want to be aware of keywords and how they will assist us in organizing our thinking, our speaking and our writing, as well as helping our readers in navigating our texts.

Today's Deeper Writing Possibilities

Think about your own life as if  you were going to create an index for your autobiography.    List in alphabetical order those keywords that should appear in the index.  Can you include at least  two or three words for each letter?

Write a brief reflection on how you use keywords in your life.
Your response may include searching the internet or databases, finding information in books, using indices, or noticing the bold or italicized words in textbooks. 

Write a short, humorous story about a word that both personifies and  defines that word.

Write a poem or essay about the most important thing for a particular item or concept.

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