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November 27, 2017

Words Matter – Active Vocabulary Acquisition

Written By: Holly Lovell Keegan


“Words matter.” We’ve all heard these words in the news lately, but for teachers of reading, this phrase has a whole different connotation. Words matter, because it is our goal for our students to acquire an increasingly sophisticated vocabulary to enhance comprehension and to use words in writing with specificity. The problem lies in engaging students in vocabulary study that is not “boring”, while promoting retention and use of the new words.

Gradient Vocabulary

Gradient vocabulary lessons were one activity I used to teach several words at the same time—and the students loved it! Gradients are much like the scale of a thermometer. The words listed increase with intensity out from the middle, synonyms one way and antonyms the other. For example, here is a typical list: ecstatic, thrilled, joyful, merry, happy, sad, glum, despondent, despairing.


Word thermometer pocket chart.


I would select a jaded word for the transition word, like the word happy above. The other words were written on cards and given to a synonym team and an antonym team. As teams, they would create their own scale and place them in a pocket chart. It led to some great discussions about the nuances of each of the words and some very funny antics as the students acted out the emotions behind the words. The teams needed to use literary instances to explain their choices, such as Wilbur discovering he was to be slaughtered, “despairing”, was more intense than Eeyore’s discovery of his missing tail, “glum”.

We copied the lists on chart paper as resources for writing with vivid vocabulary. The jaded words were listed in the room on the “Do Not Fly” list and their use was no longer permitted. Stories became far more eloquent using distinct word selection!

Visualization and Association

Stories in basals or passages are accompanied by lists of vocabulary to aid comprehension. Again, the “boring” work of defining these words was problematic. Instead, we would first eliminate all the words which were secure. To enhance the remaining words, as well as optimize student engagement, I used a lesson that promoted various forms of the word concept such as visualization and association, as opposed to rote memorization. The words were passed out to the vocabulary team of the week. Each student was to bring in an item from home, which embodied their word for them. When showing it to the class, they had to explain what their word meant and why their item signified that word. I recall one student bringing in a sneaker for his word endurance. He said having the special sneakers made it easy for him to endure a run for cancer, in memory of his grandmother. The personal touch to each word helped attach the meanings into their memories.

It took a few days to get through the list, but the continued use of the words and exposure in the text, gave the students the extra repetitions they needed. By the end of the week, they were ready for assessment. Part of the assessment was a summary of the story using at least five of the vocabulary words. Value was added for each word used correctly.

Also, each student prepared a Four Square on chart paper with their word, the definition, the sentence explaining the significance of the word, a picture of their item, and vivid antonyms and synonyms. These were compiled by the story and remained available for reference. By the end of the year, these packets, which had been stored here, there and everywhere, were well worn, but the students always asked if they could take them home to keep! Yay!

What other enticing vocabulary lessons do you use in your classroom?

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