Teaching Vocabulary

Posted on August 24, 2010


Most of us have read the research that says giving kids lists of words and  having them learn and spit back definitions doesn’t work. It doesn’t grow kids’ vocabularies. Not really. I’ve read the research (and agree with it), but I still struggle with devising an organized system for teaching vocabulary.  I like order–at least some semblance of order–and I’m finding it hard to wrangle this vocabulary beast.

I’m trying to make sure any system I devise adheres to these two principles:

  • The words aren’t devoid of context. They are tied to a text.
  • Students have time to play with the words–manipulate them, explore them, use them.

I still haven’t quite tweaked a system, but I’m discovering lots of cool ways to let kids play with words. I’ve written before about using mini dry erase boards. Kids love that. Today, I discovered a new tool: Google Sets.  It allows you to type in five words, and Google will magically generate a set of related words. Very cool.

Today in class, I had kids work in small groups to brainstorm a list of words that mean “fat.” I then gave them the word “corpulent,” displaying it on Wordnik. We looked at several synonyms, talked about the denotation and connotations of the words, clustered them into groups based on their connotations,  and wound up adding several ACT (or SAT) words:  obese, portly, rotund  to the vocabulary section of their binders.  We then read “Sidekicks,” a poem which contains the word “corpulence.”

I didn’t know about Google Sets today. I’ll be using it in future word play lessons. I’m thinking it would be a great way to learn tone words. We, for example, might start with the word “angry.” Students could type in four other words that mean “angry,” and generate a set. We could add these words to an “angry” page in our binders (and draw a picture of angry to help them remember), and then add words that mean the same as “angry.” We might then read a text that has an angry tone. I’m thinking “A Dream Deferred” might be a good text. They could choose the “angry” word that best pinpoints the author’s tone.

I’d love to hear other teachers’ ideas or systems for teaching vocabulary.