Friday, November 17, 2017


I’ve never been much of a basketball player. In spite of this--or more likely, because of this--I have a profound admiration for talented basketball players. A skilled player knows precisely where to be on the court, and when. They can think ten steps ahead and see a clear path to the basket even when an inexperienced spectator like me cannot. When they pass the ball, they know where to pass it without needing to stop and look around first. To my eyes, this almost looks like magic, but the technical term is court sense. Players with court sense may have been particularly quick or coordinated to begin with, but they have also put in countless hours of practice over the course of years, often starting with pick-up games when they were children. As they played, mastering the basics, learning the rules of the game, and improving their form, they also developed an awareness of the court and the players on it that has essentially become instinctive.

While writing and reading may seem incomparable to the game of basketball, I believe that word sense exists in much the same way that court sense does. Writers with word sense express complex ideas in a way that illuminates rather than obscures. Their diction dances and their sentences sing. Their paragraphs pulse with dynamism, every word, every clause, every sentence purposefully developing the main idea. They know precisely when to pause, when to pivot, when to drive forward. And then, like players on defense, readers with word sense pick up on nuance and subtleties to determine exactly where the author is going. They quickly ascertain the author’s purpose and detect the strategies the author will use to achieve that purpose. They spot the relationship between the words and phrases on the page and know when the author is pausing, pivoting or driving the point forward. They keep up a constant inner dialogue with the author, agreeing, disagreeing, questioning, critiquing.
Here we come to the crux of the matter: just as court sense is not built overnight, neither is word sense. Basketball players develop court sense through years of practice, shooting hoops with friends, learning the rules of the game, watching professional players, mastering the basics before trying more complex maneuvers and plays. Court sense is not a formulaic sum of all of these elements, but rather the organic byproduct of years dedicated to working on them.

Readers and writers, likewise, develop word sense through years of practice, writing for fun, actively acquiring vocabulary and grammar, reading voraciously, and trying out styles, words and phrases that they’ve picked up from their reading. I know that I as an 11th grade teacher cannot take credit for my students with word sense. That credit must be shared among the students’ other teachers starting as early as elementary school, the students’ parents, and most of all, the students themselves.

These are the students who will ace reading comprehension tests, who will pick up on argument analysis the first time around, who will get A’s on the essays I assign, who will receive 4s or 5s on the AP exam. I’m adding a square to the mosaic of their word sense, but I did not magically make them into exemplary writers or readers over the course of one school-year.

This has implications for the students who have not developed word sense, as well. It means that they should not expect A-grades if they have not invested the years into developing word sense that a handful of their classmates have. For me to give out A’s for work that is simply competent or basic would be unfair to those whose work is truly exemplary, tantamount to comparing a player who has finally figured out dribbling, passing and shooting with a player who mastered the basics long ago. I’ve been guilty of this in the past--it has resulted in grade inflation, where an ‘A’ in my class did not mean what it should have meant. This year, I’m consciously fighting that. This means that students need to adjust how they view the grades we as teachers give. A ‘B’ is not a bad grade for students who have finally gotten the basics. In my mind, ‘B’ shows that the students are competent, that they have met the standard, but are perhaps not quite ready to go beyond it. I will do whatever it takes to help my students grow as readers and writers, but I also recognize that my first priority is to help them become competent, and then to find ways to push them beyond mere competency--not necessarily to get them to an ‘A’ level. I want my students to look beyond the nine months they will spend in my class to the future. For those who have a vibrant word sense, how can they use that in whatever calling they pursue? For those who have not developed that word sense, is that something they want to develop? If so, what will that goal require of them in the coming years?

Not all of my students will attain word sense during their lifetime, and perhaps even the majority will not. However, I hope that my students, regardless of their writing or reading abilities, will come away with an admiration for word sense as I have an admiration for court sense. I want them to recognize the hours, months and years of engagement and investment that goes into truly exemplary writing or perceptive reading. And, I want them to realize that if they genuinely want to develop word sense, it’s never too late to start trying.

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