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Dr. Joanne Meier

Along with her background as a professor, researcher, writer, and teacher, Joanne Meier is a mom. Join Joanne every week as she shares her experiences raising her own young readers, and guides parents and teachers on the best practices in reading.

Expanding word knowledge: two strategies

March 1, 2013

Words are so cool! I was reminded of that last night as I helped my daughter study for her word study test. Her word study for the week involved three Latin roots (pater, mater, dicta) and, for each one, related words used in our everyday lives (for example: patriarch, matrimony, contradiction). Anna doesn't really appreciate how much she's learning about words through this study, but I sure do!

I recently came across another fun way to expand what students know about words. Over on the Teaching Channel, I watched a high school teacher talk about a strategy she uses called Vocabulary Paint Chips. The strategy involves using large paint strips or chips from the hardware store. Teachers write a vocabulary word on one color of the strip, then write different "versions" of the word on the other colors, and finally, put synonyms on one of the colors. For example, one paint chip may include illuminate, illumination, illuminating, and the synonyms enlighten and brighten. In this teacher's class, every time a student uses one of the paint chip words in their writing, they can add a sticker to a chart. (Who knew high schoolers were still motivated by stickers?!)

A related vocabulary strategy I had the joy to watch in action is called Semantic Gradients. Semantic gradients are a way to broaden and deepen students' understanding of related words. When engaged with the strategy, students consider a continuum of words by order of degree or by shades of meaning. Semantic gradients often begin with antonyms (or opposites) at each end of the continuum, and students work to fit a group of related words into their place on the continuum. During the lesson I observed, Cathy Doyle had students work with a list of words all related to the word "large." The students worked in pairs to arrange their words, ranging from microscopic to average to gigantic, into a meaningful continuum. If you'd like to try the Semantic Gradient strategy, we've got a helpful handout on the site to get you started with lists of related words.

Have fun with words!

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"If you don’t like to read, you haven’t found the right book." —

J.K. Rowling