Despite all of our educational focus these days on higher order critical thinking skills, such as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation (Bloom, Costa, etc.), the bulk of our teaching and learning at all levels of education remains at the lower levels of factual acquisition, comprehension, and application. We need this pool of knowledge to be able to accurately and efficiently inform our thinking and decision-making.
Since reading remains the chief vehicle that we use to access this knowledge, we had better get good at it. Knowing vocabulary is, of course, one of the keys to reading. The precise definitions of vocabulary words are the lower level gatekeepers that allow readers access to the higher level thinking skills.
But, some may be thinking… aren’t all words subject to individual interpretation? To some degree, yes. However, words do have a collective consciousness of meaning. They do connect to objective realities. In other words, words are not totally subjective. Words must be denotatively internalized and connotatively applied with a good deal of accuracy and skill to properly access information the way the author intends. Only when the reader understands the author’s intentions can higher order thinking skills be then applied to the text.
Although that author-reader connection is a two-way street, the relationship should be weighted heavily on the side of the author. It is the author’s thoughts that we are trying to interpret, not ours per se. An author chooses words carefully because of their precise meanings and the connotations/feelings that the collective readers commonly will understand.
So, memorizing words with precise denotative and connotative definitions is important. Sloppy use of our language inhibits effective communication and leads to misunderstandings. So, what’s the bottom line here? What’s the application for teacher and learner? It is better to teach and learn fewer words with greater precision, than many words with less precision. Two vocabulary strategies assist in this effort: The Vocabulary Ladder and Semantic Spectrums.
The Vocabulary Ladder
Students draw a graphic representation of a ladder with five rungs. They take notes in between the rungs from each of the guiding prompts (in boldface). Begin with a clear, simple, and concise dictionary definition and work students up the ladder via class and teacher brainstorming and reference to appropriate text.
Example Vocabulary Word: democracy
-It’s important because… it’s the foundation of our government.
-It’s different than… a republic because… a republic has a Constitution.
-It’s the same as… a republic because… both have citizens who are allowed to vote.
-Specific examples of it would be… direct democracy like a club, representative democracy like our Student Council.
-It’s an example of the following… ways decisions are made in governments and organizations.
-The definition is… rule by the people.
Students draw a number line with one end labeled Extreme and the other end labeled Opposite Extreme. The object is to list words in their connotative order along the spectrum of meaning. Select two vocabulary words for this activity that students fully understand that are antonyms. For example, hot and cold. Have students brainstorm synonyms to each word at the ends of the spectrum and problem-solve via consensus as to where to list each new word by degree of meaning. Select one or two unknown vocabulary words that will fit along this spectrum and read a clear, simple, and concise dictionary definition of each. Assist the students’ decision-making as to where to place these new words. Have the students write down their definitions below the spectrum.
Example Vocabulary Words: even-tempered and vicious
Extreme kind-hearted/nice/warm/even-tempered/cool/mean/cruel/vicious/hateful Opposite Extreme
For more vocabulary activities, including Greek and Latin affixes/roots worksheets, spelling-vocabulary games, vocabulary lists, vocabulary flashcards, spelling rules with memorable raps and songs on CD, spelling tests, syllable practice, to differentiate spelling and vocabulary instruction, please check out Teaching Spelling and Vocabulary at www.penningtonpublishing.com.