Parts of Speech: Essential to Any Age
It’s a common day in high school English II when I have to remind students that knowing their parts of speech is directly related to their ability to access typical ways to utilize new vocabulary.
Parts of speech, remember, are the easily-forgotten little abbreviations at the beginning of most dictionary entries. That dumb little abbreviation held very little meaning in and of itself, except that the teacher expected you to include it on the vocabulary homework.
Sure, we know the basics: the nouns and the verbs. We get shaky around the ‘adj’ and ‘adv’ abbreviations, though. Most of us may remember that adjectives go with nouns and adverbs with verbs (only because “verb” shows up in “adverb!”). If we were having this parts of speech discussion at the water cooler, then the cooler would be lonely as soon as the abbreviations “prep,” “conj,” “interj,” and “pron” popped up! Oh sure, some would attach some meaning to “pron” for pronoun, the replacement part of speech for nouns. But the other three? All done. No, thank you.
Instruction of parts of speech reminds most of us of the days the onery student would scrape his nails down the green or black chalkboards (if you use a dried up dry-erase marker on a whiteboard, you can achieve a similar enough grating sound nowadays!). Nightmares rekindle of grammar books and sad little exercises about planes and earthquakes from the 1950s. Grammar books tend to be the worst way to learn parts of speech.
Good parts of speech instruction happens in conjunction (nope, no pun intended!) with vocabulary exercises, the ones that involve the making of sentences. Recently-used vocabulary is best. That way, students already have a little experience with the words. They have seen them in a few correct ways already.
Looking at the words in their present positions, given the part of speech with which these words were introduced, students typically expect this is the only way these words can be used. It takes a little reminder that these words are being used in only one sense of many. Confusion already sets in. What? Then why did they use it this way?
Words are introduced in their most common place in sentences. The word “help” would be introduced as a verb, then as a noun. “I helped him do his work.” This sentence uses “help” as a past tense verb. “I needed his help on the project.” In this sentence, “help” is a noun. To get the idea across that words have many uses through their varying parts of speech, I like to use the same word in all the places: “I helped him, and my help was quite helpful.” This is easy with an easy word.
My students in tenth grade tend to see such words as “castigate,” “resurgence,” and “acrimonious.” Working the parts of speech on these words is just as easy as “help,” but students tend to need more convincing of that idea.
Asking my students to use all fifteen words of a given list in one sentence has proven to be quite effective in causing them to care about parts of speech. Without being able to change the endings of their vocabulary words, making different parts of speech to go with so many words in one sentence, makes this exercise quite formidable. Therefore, students have been more receptive to parts of speech instruction, knowing it will help them complete the new task effectively.
Yourdictionary.com has been especially helpful in terms of getting students to see different forms of the same word, thereby causing them to see the different parts of speech. For example, here is the entry for “castigate”:
cas-ti-gate (kas` ti ga-t`)
transitive verb castigated, castigating
to punish or rebuke severely, esp. by harsh public criticism
* castigation noun
* castigator noun
* castigatory adjective
(Webster’s New World College Dictionary Copyright © 2010 by Wiley Publishing, Inc., Cleveland, Ohio.
Used by arrangement with John Wiley & Sons, Inc. http://www.yourdictionary.com/castigate)
After seeing such an entry as this, students start using the different forms of the word in different places in their sentences. This allows them to experience using a word differently, and their awareness of the effectiveness of knowing the different parts of speech makes sense.
Effective English teachers know that four major parts of speech make up most of the vocabulary words taught. Nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs are the major “players” in vocabulary lists. (Most of our prepositions, conjunctions, and pronouns were sight words learned in elementary days.) Reminding students of these four major parts of speech and incorporating standard suffixes to show how the major four look proves to be a difficult enough task.
Each year, it’s the same starting point that works best for students: getting them to use new words in new situations that require this reminder that parts of speech are the ticket to different uses and more varied sentences, which work effectively.
The real effect of this parts of speech article will lie in the comments it receives and whether any castigation results from its publication. Writing about parts of speech…I must be nuts!