Strung from the ceiling with red yarn, a wire clothes hanger (the kind you get from the dry cleaner’s) dangles brightly colored cards with “Topic Sentence” “Evidence” and “Support” printed on them for every student in the room to see. Intrigued, I asked my colleague about it. “It’s the thesis,” she said matter-of-factly, “because everything hangs from the thesis.”
I know – brilliant, right? Such was my introduction to the concept of the graphic organizer. I went home, raided my closet, and made one for my own classroom. But the idea of hanging things in front of students to depict how we use language got me thinking. As students move through school and beyond to the workplace and/or post-secondary education and training, it’s important for them to develop an understanding of audience awareness and the appropriate usage of formal vs. informal language. Addressing the boss (or professors) with the same casual language used to greet friends and family members is a faux pas – especially in writing.
We can borrow some other items from the closet to quickly illustrate the differences between formal and informal language:
Ranging from least to most formal, the t-shirt could represent the most casual speaking and writing situations, such as how we greet and engage with our friends and peers. If asked or prompted for examples, students might respond that slang or “text-speak” abbreviations (OMG! u r so funny, LOL!) would fall into this category.
A little bit dressier is the polo shirt, which could symbolize a step up in formality. We might, for example, address familiar people who deserve a certain degree of respect (such as parents, teachers, or grandparents) with this type of common, ordinary, everyday language. Though probably devoid of many slang expressions, this category is still a bit “casual Friday,” and may include some regionalisms or colloquial expressions familiar to the group.
Even dressier is the shirt and tie. This is “business dress” – serious, buttoned-down Standard Edited English tailored for a specific audience. Examples of this speaking and writing situation would include business or workplace communication and academic writing. This is where the study of vocabulary words pays off.
And finally, the bow tie and tux shirt connote “special” occasions – reserved for speaking and writing situations such as college essays or marriage proposals, which occur infrequently, but call for a smattering of elegance and grace. As the graphic organizer quickly depicts, what we’re really talking about here is not just degrees of formality and familiarity, but sophistication. Consider, for example, the verb to steal:
A listing of slang words or expressions might include boost, snitch, jack, lift, rip off, pinch, and/or take the infamous “five-finger discount.” It’s likely that students could generate an even more “colorful” supply of very informal terms.
Of course, the common, ordinary, everyday word we’re discussing is steal, and it serves the purpose in most conversations and incident reports. But what if we’re writing an argumentative essay on crime using theft statistics, or an inventory loss report for the boss?
This is where vocabulary words come in. Not only can we avoid the monotony of repeating the word “steal” over and over again, but by using a few words with a little more sophistication, we can also dress up our self-expression and give precise and nuanced meanings. We could pilfer, filch, plunder, or appropriate a few choice words, for instance.
How about purloin? Not a word you see every day, but something that James Bond or Jason Bourne might be inclined to do in certain desperate situations.
In addition to helping students see the subtle differences between formal and informal language, and encouraging them to think about audience awareness, familiarity, and choosing the right words in their own speaking and writing, this graphic organizer might also be used to jump-start a discussion of diction with examples drawn from literature, and/or to discuss the denotation(s) and connotation(s) of a single word or words. Regardless, just as seeing that clothes hanger used as a graphic organizer for “the thesis” in my colleague’s classroom gave me some new ideas and got me thinking, I hope that the presentation of this graphic organizer gives you some ideas to hang around with for a while.