Adolf Konrad, packing list, 1962–63. Adolf Ferdinand Konrad papers, 1962–2002. Archives of American Art. Smithsonian Institution.

I have often bemoaned lists of any sort and as a proverbial list hater and listophobic haunted by doubts such as: Where have I put my list? What should I include? How can I not feel daunted and dominated by the list? As a result of list intimidation, I have suffered the chaotic consequences of list avoidance!

However, of all of the lists I have hated, perhaps it’s vocabulary lists most of all that rankle. I dislike the smug assurance that these lists will expand students’ vocabulary and boost reading scores. Mostly,  I see these sort of lists as an inadequate way to foster an understanding and love of a words and that these lists are not in any shape or form a ‘study’ of words. All too often these lists are given to students with the instruction ‘Write the definition and write a sentence using the word’. All too often, sentences using the new word are trite and shallow. Rarely is there any discussion of the morphology or the etymology. Rarely are students asked to make connections to a word’s ‘relatives’- those sharing the same root and base.

Yet, ironically perhaps, what follows is our work on a list of words! These words are ‘listed’ as concepts that are critical to the focus throughout the year. As such these words will be encountered many times and in a variety of situations. All these words have been part of a year long list visible from the first day of school. These words are on our tables and on the walls. We have the words written individually on A3 paper with sticky pad notes that grow and flutter through the year with all the connections students have found in books, texts, articles, current events, movies, art. We refer to them constantly, asking students to make connections with these words to the literature we are studying or link to an art piece and justify their thinking. We list all the people we meet throughout the year- fictional, historical and very much alive and then connect them to one of the words.  We reinforce concepts of prefixes and suffixes and base elements with these words and make lists of these playing various ‘games’ such as: “ I’m thinking of a word with a bound base element, a prefix and two suffixes’ or ‘ The root is from Latin and has a sense of twisting’. I hope by the end of the year students have a deep understanding of these words, the roots and back-stories, the connotations as well as the process of how to go about ‘reading’ and researching a word. I’ve learned that lists aren’t all bad- it’s what you do with them:  how you group them, what patterns and principles you explore, what questions you ask and what questions the students ask about them!

Below are both my humanities classes selection of words for investigation from the list:

It was a day of madness and mayhem as we attempted to wrap up our independent word study investigations. The idea that you can ‘wrap up’ anything swiftly and neatly in word study is somewhat deluded. There is always another aspect, another line of inquiry, another connection that can be pursued. We decided that everyone would share their insights into their chosen word and after completing a matrix to indicate the related words, find somewhere quiet to record their connections and their investigative process. The students agreed that Quicktime screen recording would be a fast way of sharing their thoughts thus far.

As  ‘experts’ on their word, students were expected to ensure information was accurate as possible. I adapted Janet Allen’s concept ladder to include more than a definition of the word- to add denotation and connotation, elements and root and through examples from literature, history and the present day, to consider the more abstract reflections as to the effects and causes of the particular ‘concept’ under investigation. Often these connections have led to thoughtful written responses but today we thought oral explanation aided by their ‘ladders’ was an important, often under utilized way of assessing understandings.

Listen to Nina discuss her word with me below:

Listen to Lauren and Sahana share their understandings:


It is interesting for me to see how far students go at this stage of the year without teacher prompting. Many students rushed the word sums in forming their matrix, all too eager to press ‘update’ on the mini-matrix-maker to experience the heady pleasure of an instant and satisfying result.  Yet while this is a thrill with all those word sums transformed into neat columns and rows, persistence, thoughtfulness and care to be as accurate as possible are important. Working through the word sums in order to construct the matrix was for some students less exciting than the hunt for the root. However, this is a crucial part of consolidating morphemic understanding. In the construction of the matrix, there were many questions of one another, their resources and me. The matrix construction process too helped clarify the concept of compound words with some students finding examples of other free bases that can be attached to their base. Many recognized that over, under and by were not prefixes but free base elements and that fy and fic were from Latin facere : to make or to do, and are frequent base elements in present day English often mistaken for suffixes.

How can one not become besotted by lists when looking at Adolf Konrad’s inspirational packing list above? As I sit here a little shivery in the Tokyo Narita airport ( on my way to an etymological Word-Fest that I bet involved lists in the organizing) I’m wondering why didn’t I pack better and plan with a beautiful list like Adolf’s above. I will listen to and watch my student’s talking through their understanding of a word and make a list- a list of where to go next, of what each student has learned so far, of what suffixes have been identified or confused… Lists are not all bad… I’m moving from listophobia to listaphilia!