Eight Ways to Explore New Vocabulary Words

Plus free handouts to download

“Vocabulary is about precision.” Those are the words of Sheridan Blau, author and Professor of Practice in English Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. I heard Blau speak at the Writing & Thinking Conference hosted by the Ozarks Writing Project at Missouri State University two years ago. Blau’s concise statement has stayed with me since.

And really, don’t we learn and use new words for the precision — the particular meanings, tones, and nuances — they provide?

So, for precision’s sake, once a week in my independent reading class, my mix of juniors and seniors explore four new-to-them words they discovered in their reading over the previous couple of days.

Download my vocabulary handouts here!

I’ve also used these options as a weekly bell-ringer on Thursdays. I chose Thursday, because often I would pull a word from the text I planned to read on Fridays during First Chapter Fridays. For a bell-ringer activity, just copy the above options handout, and cut one of the four sections off for students to fill out during bell work, or have them create their option on notebook paper.

Use the handout below so students have examples of each option.

To internalize these new words, students explore them with eight methods outlined on teacher-author Corbett Harrison’s Always Write website. This site is a wealth (seriously… like so much stuff!) of reading, writing, and vocabulary lesson plans and tips, plus a very detailed Writer’s Workshop design that inspired the one I use to this day. If you visit the site, you’ll quickly gather that much of the material is geared to elementary and middle school, but not all. In fact, most of it can easily be adjusted for high school students.

And that’s what I’ve done with what I call our “vocabulary options.”

These options or strategies involve critical thinking and help students go from “look up the definition and use it in a sentence” to internalizing their new words by exploring meanings, connotations, and connections to other ideas.

Here are the eight strategies (in no particular order, by the way) that Harrison created for students to get themselves comfortable with their knowledge of a new word.

1. Stickman Cartoon

Students explore a new word by drawing a cartoon with stick figures. Their stick figure must be saying something that uses the new word or the cartoon is accompanied by one to two sentences that explain the drawing and uses the word.

The new word: encumbered

2. Word Art

In this option, students make at least four associations with their word’s meaning. The student writes the word so the word’s letters represent ideas and connections to the word. He or she must make four connections to the word’s meaning, and then write a paragraph below the word art that explains each connection. They must include this paragraph, so I can tell they understand the word’s meaning.

The new word: huaraches | “The H is a thonged sandal, the “u” is the Aztec symbol for movement, the “c” is Mexico, and the “s” is woven because many of them were woven.”

3. Symbolic Representation

In this option, the student draws a picture of an object that stands for or symbolizes their word. They also write one to two sentences that explain why they chose this object to symbolize the word, including using the word in their explanation. Lastly — and this is important for this option — the symbol cannot be the word itself. I always explain it this way: “Don’t draw a pedestrian to symbolize a pedestrian.”

The new word: refute

4. Create an App

I love this one! In this option, the student invents an app that is named the word. Then they write two or more sentences that describe what the app does. In other words, they must explain the purpose and features of the app, which are based on the word’s meaning. They also design a logo for the app (its screen badge) as well as write a user review, both of which must show an understanding of the word’s meaning.

The new word: impervious

5. Nature Haiku

Calling all poets! For this option, students write a haiku poem that must be nature-related and use the word. Of course, the poem must contain five syllables in the first and third lines, and seven in the second line. They also must draw a picture to illustrate their poem.

The new word: heron | And yes, that first line lacks a syllable. Whoops.

6. Horror Movie

This options asks students to invent a horror movie whose title is or contains their word. They also must write a tagline or slogan that creatively describes the gist of the movie and contains the word. Plus, students must include an illustration that shows knowledge of the word.

The new word: epitaph

7. Personified Word

This is a fun one! To personify a word, students must create a person named with their word. They also write three to four sentences that describe the personality or lifestyle of their person, based on the word’s meaning. Of course, they’ll need to draw their person in such a way that shows knowledge of the word.

The new word: snippets

8. Superhero and Villain

This is probably the most involved option of the eight. First, students must draw a superhero. They must also write two to three sentences that describe the superhero’s name and abilities, which are based on the new word. Then, it’s time to switch and think about the opposite of that superhero. Draw a villain and add two to three sentences that describe villain’s name and abilities based on an antonym. Here’s an example:

The new word: amends

Bring on the color!

Lastly, I often encourage students to use color and take their time with the drawings. I stress that it’s not an art project, but there needs to be an honest effort made at being neat, legible, and original. In my current independent reading class, however, my students (most of them anyway, wink-wink) take their time to be creative, thoughtful, and colorful!

These options have been mainstays in my vocabulary teaching for several years. I can’t imagine not using them in my independent reading class. In fact, even in my regular English classes, we’ll use some of these options as discussion springboards during our weekly vocab bell-ringer activity.

That being said, this vocab approach isn’t perfect and I know that.

Be aware that I know this approach is not fully developed. I know I still need to figure out a way to provide students with multiple exposures to their new words. Should we bind these into a book? Have students choose their four best, most well-considered options and present those? A “one and done” approach doesn’t work with writing, so why should it work with vocabulary?

As for timing this activity…

The kids, once they get used to creating them, can explore four words in one 50-minute class period if they budget their time and stay focused.

In my previous middle school position, these four-word explorations were a weekly homework assignment. Students collected ten words on bookmarks in their reading class or in their own reading, and then chose four of them to explore using these options.

As for grading…

I glance through the options and assign a maximum of five points to each of the four words. In the past with my middle schoolers, however, I was known to often use a rubric unique to each option. (Sounds more complicated than it was… honest!)

Marilyn Yung

Thanks for reading! These vocabulary options are one of my favorite ways to inject creativity into ELA. I hope they work for you!

If you have questions about how to implement these options, leave a comment below or send me a message via my Contact page. And don’t give up! Your vocabulary efforts WILL pay off! Read this post: Don’t give up on improving your students’ vocabulary skills

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Published by Marilyn Yung

Writes | Teaches | Not sure where one ends and the other begins.

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