Burke Chapter 7: Language Study

Leah Phillips, EDU 628: Expert Presentation


The title of Chapter 7 in The English Teacher's Companion is entitled, "The Language of Learning, Literature, and Life." While the chapter is centered around the importance and use of vocabulary, grammar, and style, Burke makes it clear in his introduction that "...the subject of this chapter is not mere 'vocabulary' or 'grammar' but the meaning and importance of these words" (256). That is, vocabulary is so much more than the definitions of words and that grammar is so much more than sentence structure. Vocabulary--for students--shapes not only their learning experience, but their entire life. Speaking, writing, and reading is largely about ideas, stories, thoughts, and information, but it is easy to neglect the "...the combined role that language plays in both reading and writing" (257). So while there is an academic approach to take when it comes to vocabulary, grammar, usage, and style, it is important to note that there is also a practical side of these components which everyone--both us and our students--uses as a part of daily life. To that end, Burke reminds readers on page 258 that these components, vocabulary, grammar, and style (including rhetoric), are all covered in the Common Core Standards for language.


Burke cites Michael Graves' book, The Vocabulary Book, and points out to readers that when teaching students about vocabulary, it is important to remember the following:

  1. The vocabulary learning task is enormous! Estimates of vocabulary size vary greatly, but a reasonable estimate...[is that] books and other reading materials used by school children include [more than] 180,000 different words.
  2. That there are far more words to be learned than we can possibly teach is not an argument that we should not teach any of them.
  3. There is increasing evidence that many children of poverty enter school with vocabularies much smaller than those of their middle class counterparts (3).

If these three points do anything, they illustrate both disparity in academic abilities between social classes, and more importantly, the utter importance and significance of simply taking time to teach students language.

Burke mentions the "...three-tier model, which the Common Core frameworks use as the basis for their vocabulary standards" (259).

  • Tier One words are considered everyday language that are learned early on in life.
  • Tier Two words (CCS refer to Tier Two words as "general academic words") are found mostly in written work and are "highly generalizable."
  • Tier Three words are specific to a certain domain, area of work, or field of study.

Burke notices that words from all tiers are likely to be found in the ELA classroom at some point in time, so when it comes to assessing his students' knowledge, he has them tell him about their relationship with the word on a scale of 0-5, which 0 signifying, "Never heard of seen it; I have no idea what it means," and 5 meaning, "Know if and can use it with confidence" (More on this on page 261).

Best Practices for Vocabulary Instruction


Burke suggests that ELA teachers provide students with different kinds of texts which employ different styles and kinds of writing; however, he also encourages teachers to introduce these texts to students in different ways. For example, you can have the students read silently, you can have them read in partners, you can have them read aloud, you can read aloud to them, etc. The idea is that the ways in which the students touch the texts are VARYING and not limited to a student just reading to him/herself.


Teaching individual words can happen in many modes; however, Burke mentions that this practice will be especially helpful with Tier Three words. Tier Two words (what we consider traditional vocabulary) are beneficial and helpful for students to learn and study on an in-depth level; however, engaging students with the terms that are specific to the ELA classroom will help enhance the ways in which they perform IN the ELA classroom.


While it is largely the teacher's responsibility to teach students vocabulary, it is also up to the student to learn vocabulary. Burke argues that teaching students HOW to use tools, such as context clues, in order to learn words on their own will help alleviate some of the language barrier that exists in the classroom. However, he also noted that not all strategies are effective or transferable from context to context. Burke also touches on how it is vital to model vocabulary use/study for the students, to appeal to all learners, to teach students about word parts, to use images to show the meaning of a word, and to generate concept maps for words.


This practice is relatively complex. Burke points out that it is important to teach students to simply BE AWARE of vocabulary, instead of allowing them to just read and not actually pay attention to the text. For example, do students notice the ambiguity in the language in Shakespeare's sonnets, the connotations that a single word can carry? Do they consider onomastics (nicknames/specialized names)? Pointing these elements out to students will foster a more cognitive awareness in their minds when they approach a text.

"Let us then begin our inquiry into which elements of this 'verbal ecosystem' we should teach and how we can do it best..." (Burke 257)

Grammar, Style, AND Rhetoric

In this section of Chapter 7, Burke opens with a strong statement: "People judge us by how we use language when we speak and write" (271). If there has ever been an academic truth, this is it. Ensuring that students understand the vitality of grammar, style, and rhetorical devices--AND ENSURING THAT THEY KNOW HOW TO USE EACH COMPONENT BOTH EFFECTIVELY AND CORRECTLY--is what helps secure their academic success. To that end, Burke encourages ELA teachers to help students take on the persona of the writer, of the speaker, of the reader--and not just the student (272). He suggests that putting them in that specific mindset asks them to be aware of the role they must fulfill.

While there are MANY divergent paths that can be taken when studying grammar, style, and rhetoric, Burke asks: "What is my ultimate objective, what am I trying to teach my students when it comes to grammar, usage, style, and rhetoric? How to write clearly, correctly, and cogently about a range of topics and texts; but also to know how to speak about the way grammar and usage function within the texts they read closely and write about throughout the year" (276).

"How to Teach Grammar, Language, and Style"

Later on in the chapter, Burke references some of the more common and most-practiced ways that ELA teachers have taught grammar, language, and style:

  1. Sentence Combining: "...is considered one of the most effective instructional approaches available, one which works well with a wide range of students" (280). While this practice can take place in many ways, the idea is consistent: you give students 2-3 sentences, and have them work through the most effective way(s) to combine said sentences.
  2. Sentence Composing: is a relatively complex practice; however, it is "a variation on sentence combining" (281). In a nutshell, it asks students to compose a sentence (or sentences) based on what the purpose of the sentence should be (which asks students to recall reading skills--for example: "What is the purpose of this sentence? Is it a rhetorical question? Is it a declarative statement?").
  3. Sentence Templates: is simple, in theory, too. Teachers give students a template for a sentence and the students use knowledge on style and rhetoric in order to best "complete" the sentence (examples on page 285).
  4. Structured Notes: "...work to teach both analytical writing and reading" (285). Essentially, structured notes ask students to map out both the basic information to be covered in the sentence, and then they are asked to "dive deeper," so to speak, and (again) figure out the PURPOSE of the sentence--why is the sentence important?

Burke touches on several more practices on how to teach grammar & style (and rhetoric!) on pages 286-288; however, these four seem to be, in my opinion, the most effective and "doable."


  • Burke included an interesting list on page 273 entitled, "The Top 20- Most Common Writing Errors." I can testify to the accuracy of this list, because I have seen these issues in my students' writing.
  • There are several important and intensive lists/tables/etc. on pages 277-279 and on page 289 that I would highly recommend checking out.

Closing Thoughts

While some teachers may dismiss the importance of vocabulary, grammar, and style, Burke reminds us that we ultimately "...want our students to write cogent prose that is as correct as it is capable of achieving whatever outcome the writer seeks" (290). If we fail to teach students both the significance of those three components and how to use them correctly and effectively, we have failed them. Aside from needing these skills to be successful in the classroom (and not just the ELA classroom--the math classroom, the history classroom, the science classroom, and the art/music classroom!), students--people in general--need these skills in order to succeed in the world in which we are living. The standard for speaking, writing, and reading is constantly rising for people in the working world, it seems like, so it is necessary for teachers to be aware of how to teach vocabulary, grammar, and style well.