Primary schools are fantastic at teaching children how to use words other than ‘said’. As a teacher, I witnessed several powerful lessons that encouraged children to steer away from the ‘boring’, and towards the ‘interesting’. Students would create extensive verb lists and swap these words into their dialogue, banishing ‘said’ altogether.
But is this taught too aggressively?
Firstly, teaching students to use a large vocabulary is essential. Children benefit when being able to draw from a wider range of words; it helps them refine their ideas. However, dialogue crammed with ‘interesting’ verbs becomes overbearing and tiring for the reader. There is simply too much going on.
‘Said’ is a highly neglected and underrated word in primary schools. Students need to learn that, because it is an invisible word, ‘said’ holds much more power than they might assume.
‘Said’ allows the reader to skim over the text, which brings the dialogue to life. The emphasis is on what the characters say, driving the story. By predominantly using ‘said’, the writer has the advantage of being able to carefully and deliberately choose when to drop in alternative verbs. ‘Said’ becomes powerful, because its absence creates effect.
I recently asked a student to tally the verbs in her dialogue. She counted 2 x ‘said’ and 10x ‘other’. She then opened a novel to a random page and did the same, counting 10 x ‘said’ and 2 x ‘other’. It was a light bulb moment for this young writer, as she instantly saw where she was overemphasising.
On a side note, the student also tallied her punctuation and realised she was using exclamation marks far too often – again, losing power due to overuse.
In short, students should not stop learning a range of verbs. They should learn to use them sparingly; with purpose.