Small Words

Confession time: I have a few university degrees and I sometimes sound like a graduate student.  For those that don’t know, graduate student speech is convoluted way of talking that uses 600 syllables to say what 3 will do.

For example:

One is willing to profess significant romantic and sexual attachment to you as a unique individual and  monogamous romantic partner.


I love you.

After living/working/teaching in the world of Special Needs for over 15 years, I realised you can say a heck of alot with not so many words.

Think scientific concepts for example:

My five year old, Mr. Sensitive, loves science.  When he was four he wanted to learn about different states of matter (solid, liquid, gas) and the reasons matter may exist in one state or another (arrangement of molecules).  Then, explaining what’s a molecule, an atom, a chemical, etc…  Let me spare you the explanations, and simply say we spent most of our time arranging oranges on the kitchen table to represent the molecular arrangements of various matter states.  He understands solids have molecules tightly packed together while gases have molecules rolling across our kitchen table.

He also got up at 3 am one night to take the oranges out of the fridge to recreate molecular arrangements and poured condiments together to build his own chemical mixtures.  But I digress.

Sometimes small words capture big ideas.  Add a few oranges (or whatever physical prop you have on hand) and you can recreate the structure of the universe.

This relates to my love of hi/low texts for struggling readers.  I write about this at length at my other blog, On the Book Pile, but I want to say I see this genre as a social equity issue.  People have the right to accessible information that they can make sense of.

Think of the decisions we make daily – healthcare, elections, purchasing consumer products, etc…  We seek information to make the best decisions we can.  It helps if the information is accessible.

Really, if I’m trying to buy a new iPhone I do not want to read pages of technical gobbledy-goop, I just want enough information to make a decision.  Tell me what works, what doesn’t and why you like it.

For people with special needs that affect language processing, small words can be the foundation for big ideas.  A person with a learning disability may not be able to read a grade 10 science text book, but might be able to demonstrate an understanding of bonds between electrons using play doh.  Big idea, explained with small words (and physical prop).  In teaching, we’d call that a manipulative (something you physically manipulate to explain or explore a concept).  I’m avoiding the word ‘manipulative’ because it’s another way of using 5 syllables to convey what one can do – prop, stuff, toy, thing.  In my son’s case, oranges.

Of course, we lose some precision in meaning, but I think something is gained in understanding if we support the concept in other ways.  Make connections to life, use physical props, dramatize, draw pictures, whatever.

My sister is a science teacher for university-bound high school students.  Her classes use play doh to recreate cellular structure and drama to reconstruct the digestive tract.  When I teach folks at the university level I get them to represent concepts using pictures and a few words.  Sometimes we do drama too.  The folks I teach have at least two university degrees already; and you should see the lights go on (metaphorically) when we enact concepts using drama.  Oh, now I see, they say.

But, back to the printed word.  I think as a writer it is one thing to take an idea and explain it using big words.  I could repeat any scientific concept using the same language of science.  But it is another thing entirely to take a big idea and explain is using small words and simple language. I think of someone I once knew who was doing a PhD in chemistry – he wrote his thesis in ‘folksy’ language.  He wanted his mother to understand it.  This is the antithesis of my graduate student example.

I am not advocating ‘dumbing down’ of ideas or language.  I love big words like the next person, and Tolstoy is a mainstay on my bedside table.

I am advocating for the rights of struggling readers.  They may be able to understand the big ideas, if presented simply.  Look at my son and his oranges-as-molecules for example.  My son is a struggling reader, his letter recognition is significantly below what is appropriate for his age.  But, he understands big ideas.  Let’s make them accessible for him.


About Angela

Super-powered, Special Ed teacher and special needs mama to FOUR (!) children with an assortment of special needs; including Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy and Prader Willi Syndrome. Our family features a heavy dose of good ol' ADHD). I blog about our halfpastnormal life.
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4 Responses to Small Words

  1. Your last paragraph is powerful – I used to speak too big about small ideas – I no longer do that as it is annoying– making big ideas accessible and simple is what I strive to do–convoluted (sp?-where is spellcheck when you need it?) explanations only make something even more confusing. I now strive to understand things so I can explain them in real langu

  2. solodialogue says:

    Well said. This is something I struggle with daily.

  3. Angela says:

    Thank you both. I’m glad you connected with this post. I’m stepping off the soapbox now, and eating some oranges 😉

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