Which word to choose?

5th November 2017

Welcome to part 3 of my teaching reading blog- practical strategies for teachers, TAs and parents. This week focuses on teaching vocabulary as well as how to answer word choice questions.

I believe that teaching vocabulary over time is one of the hardest aspects of teaching reading. When children are young, they pick up most of their vocabulary from the people around them, what they watch and how they interact with the world. They pick up new words easily, and most of the time we don’t even have to think about getting them to expand their word choice.

But as children get older, new vocabulary tends to come from what they read, and if that choice is limited, or children come from families where improving in a language, English or otherwise, is not prized, then their vocabulary is easily capped. As educators, we have to find new ways of introducing words that are more effective in demonstrating meaning.

1.      Encourage children to use one word rather than 3. One of the students I tutor did a lovely description of winter for me, but rather than selecting the best word for the job, she went all out on using lists of adjectives. The problem here is that she was unable to choose the word which would encompass all of her ideas; instead she thought that having lots of adjectives would automatically make her description good. My tip to combat this is to create your own synonym posters/ jotters where young people can experiment with words which have similar meanings. You need to ensure that they feel comfortable enough to use new words rather than the ones they have always relied on, even if that means they use it slightly out of context. It all adds to the discussion of how we construct meaning. If they can create their own, then they can take responsibility for their own vocabulary choices.

2.      Show children that there are shades of meaning. This next one is fun, and also improves a child’s colour knowledge. Banish the leaves being green for ever. Grab some of the paint sample cards from your local DIY chain. Not only do they have loads, they have never minded me taking handfuls of them (take one of each card, which will be more than enough for your class). Before giving them out, why not test the children on possible colours (what colours are emerald, heliotrope or vermillion?) If you have enough cards, the children can even make their own colour display using them, so that if they do slip back into telling you the autumn leaves are red, you can point them in the direction of the answer. Many of these words cannot be found in thesauri as synonyms. The second challenge introduces/ revises comparative (+er) and superlative (+est) adjectives. Show the top colour is light, then lighter, then lightest. Extend this to other adjectives, and remember to explain that the use of more, as in more interesting, occurs when +er or +est cannot be added.

3.      Play round robin. The next activity can be used any time you need to fill time, or as a regular slot to develop synonym knowledge. Write a simple sentence on the board such as Jim hated sprouts. Each child then has to change the underlined word. See how far your class can go (for example, loathed, despised, detested).

4.      Answering word choice questions. First of all, let me start by saying this is not an easy task, and the students I see struggle are ones whose vocabulary is not as wide as it needs to be for their age. We all know the problem. Once a child is deemed a “free reader”, many revert back into reading Roald Dahl or Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and whilst we do need to support them reading for enjoyment, some of their choices will not build their vocabulary. To answer a word choice question, students need to be able to describe in their own words what the effect of the chosen word is. Think about the above example: Jim hated sprouts. How does that meaning change if we use despised? To me, it makes it seem as though Jim has a vendetta against those poor spouts (though I agree with him on this one!). You will need to model how to answer these questions with your children, and show your thought process as you move through possible interpretations.