Sunday, March 20, 2011

Using New Vocabulary Words

As I work with students on summarizing, character traits, and character emotions, I try to convince them to use more specific, detailed words. Many of the words that work particularly well in fiction are not in our everyday speaking vocabularies. It can be a challenge to help students to learn and assimilate these words.

One of the best tools that I've found is a list of related words for a specific purpose. I give students the list, often on brightly colored paper so that it stands out in their reading folders. Instead of going over the words one by one, I present them with situations that might encourage them to try one of the new words.

For example, with character emotions, I give students this list (originally published in The Forest and the Trees). Then, we act out various situations and talk about which words would fit the situation. Curious kids will ask--"What is the difference between perplexed and bewildered?" Once they've asked the question, it's the perfect opportunity to help them understand the meanings and uses of these words.

By arranging the words in categories, students can use known words to help them understand unknown words. For example, "indignant" must mean something along the same lines as "upset." (The example I used with this was a great-aunt asking a fourth grader if they were in kindergarten yet. That always gets an indignant response!)

The list of words for summarizing dialogue works in the same way. After I gave out the list, I had students act out simple situations that lend themselves to the words on the list. We talked about how we could summarize the long conversations into just one or two sentences using these words. Once again, including known words with the new words helps students to figure out the shades of meaning and how these words relate to each other.

What else could you use lists of related words to teach? I think there are many possibilities! Next year, I'm going to pull this over to math class to help students describe their mathematical thinking.

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