Radiolab: “Words”

As English teachers we deal in words.  Every day I want more words, better words, more meaningful words. I want my students to feel the same way.  I want them to linger over Hemingway’s use of the word “nada” in “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” and pour over all the description of the “courtesy bay” between Fitzgerald’s dashes.

It’s not that simple.

While you can teach a series of pieces that talk about the significance of words and writing (William Hazlitt’s “On Familiar Style,” “Why I Write” by Joan Didion, “Politics and the English Language,“ by George Orwell or Stephen King’s On Writing) students still struggle to synthesize the importance and effect of language.

Enter Radiolab and the program entitled “Words.”   It’s a different angle from which to teach language.  All three stories discuss, in essence, worlds either without language or with developing language.  Whereas my desire is to throw as much language at a student as possible, this program begins with the following premise:  Do words change the world?  Literally.  Does having language change our experience, understanding, and ability to think?

The program is composed of three segments.  Each one is detailed below.   You might choose only one or assign one for homework.  They are powerful, and if you decide to use them, you will want to be able to enjoy the discussion that comes after “collectively” listening together.

I’ve offered questions to have students write/discuss.  A Socratic Seminar using these podcasts as the basis would be perfect. The questions provided could be a starting point.

I would also suggest having students take one of the segments and write their own SYNTHESIS questions.  Model for them some of the questions below, and then set them lose with one of the segments and ask them to construct big picture synthesis questions.  It should help them use the pieces to get to more than just regurgitation of information.


Words that change the World (Use through 11:20)

A piece about how language/words actually create a depth of understanding.  Even the simplest words shape how we see others and ourselves.  The piece itself has significant resemblance to The Miracle Worker.  In fact, it would be a perfect pairing. 

Questions for classroom use:

  • What does it mean to not have language?
  • What do words do for us?  Are they necessary?
  • Why does Schaller play the role of the invisible student?
  • What does it mean that “everything has a name” to Schaller’s student?
  • Why does language move Schaller’s student to tears?
  • Why is it important that Schaller calls her student’s paper of words “treasure?”  What is the implication?
  • Do words change the world? Answer the question simply.

A World Without Words  (11:54 minutes)

This piece argues that losing language brings peace/joy. Jill Bolte Taylor, who is the interviewee, also has given a TED talk that you may considering using.   You might consider pairing this with Slaughterhouse Five.  There is something about Tralfamadore and Billy Pilgrim’s experience there seems similar to Bolte Taylor’s argument.

Questions for classroom use:

  • What is left without words or language? ?
  • Do words bring us joy or weigh us down?
  • Defend, challenge or qualify the argument that words weigh us down.
  • How do we create the “story of our life” through language?


New Words, New Worlds (18:06)

This piece is an argument about the development and constant evolution of a new language via a deaf school in Nicaragua.  Use to discuss the necessity/complexity of language and its relationship to critical thinking.

Questions for classroom use:

  • What is the significance of language?
  • What is the significance of a language being born?
  • What argument does this make about communication and the human existence?

And, that’s not all.  Tomorrow we’ll discuss how to use the two videos that were created by Everynone to compliment the entirety of “Words.”  We’ll also talk about how this videos can be a springboard for a small group,  collaborative, and media rich assignment.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *