Tuesday, May 31, 2011


Please take one minute (and eight seconds) to watch these compiled scenes from one of my favorite quotable movies, “The Princess Bride.”
              “You keep using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means.”  Have you ever wanted to say that to your child?  I know I do.  Vocabulary is vital to any learning program, and we sometimes give so many vocabulary words to learn at once that we don’t allow our child to really understand what each word means.  How can I help my child really understand the vocabulary that s/he is learning each week?
Less is more.  Limit the number of words your child must learn.  During conversations in the teacher’s lounge, I remember one teacher in particular telling about twenty vocabulary words in Reading, ten words from Science, and 15 words from Social Studies, as well as 5 vocabulary words from Math that she had assigned her students to memorize that week.  She talked on and on about how lazy her students were – that they just wouldn’t study, so she was going to start testing them every day on each subject to make sure they studied. 
This teacher assigned her students fifty new vocabulary words on Monday and expected them to know them well enough to be quizzed on them by Tuesday – inconceivable!  (If you watched the link above, then you should be chuckling now!).  Particularly for elementary age students or students who have a limited vocabulary, NEVER assign more than ten vocabulary words per week.  Not ten per subject – ten total!  Middle school and high school student can learn ten per science subject and ten per social studies subject, but I would not go over thirty vocabulary words per week – total.  That means you have to be careful in picking what you want your student to study.  Don’t choose words s/he should already know.  You can discuss these words for review, but if they should know them, don’t waste their time.  Carefully choose “diamonds” for the words you want your child to learn.
With an extremely limited list of words to learn, your child can develop a depth of understanding for each word.  Lexicons can help you develop this necessary complexity of understanding so that your child will be able to use these words appropriately.  Lexicons, according to dictionary.com, are a dictionary, or a list of terms related to a particular subject.  In education, a lexicon can refer to any chart or form in which you disseminate a word or subject for better understanding.  Most teachers have their own favorite lexicons, and they have usually adapted the one they like from someone else’s.  Because of this, you will rarely find two teachers who like using exactly the same one.  This is fine, and homeschooling parents may even want to adapt their style every couple of years to add new skills which your child is learning.
I personally prefer a lexicon which includes the levels of Blooms Taxonomy.  This is simply a list of six different levels of the depth of thinking required for various tasks or assignments.   I love using a list of verbs which use Blooms Taxonomy so that in my lessons, I can ensure that I am making my student(s) think at varying degrees, instead of simply repeating things back.  Simply repeating, though, is necessary, especially when you are beginning your topic of instruction, so don’t only teach from the highest levels. 
Before I give you my lexicon, I want to explain how I used it every week in class.  I would have my students create a vocabulary book (a new one each week) using two or three pieces of paper.  We decorated the cover with the title of our topic of study for the week.  Then, each page was dedicated to one word.  I had them do numbers 1 – 3 & #7 on the list below for each of the words of the week on the first day.  Then, on the second day, we did numbers 4 – 7 for each word.  On day three, I gave them time to complete the book, since only a few of the students would completely finish.  Each day, and the day of the test, I would have them read over the information, read my definition, and change #7 as needed.  My goal was for every word on number 7 to be a #3 or #4 by the end of the week.  Yes, some students figured this out quickly and simply wrote “4” on all of the words, but most of the students enjoyed changing the numbers as they learned.  My grades on this lexicon booklet were simple:  either 100% or 0%.  Either they did the work – and it was impossible do it and not learn! – or they didn’t do it and got a 0%.
Here is the lexicon which I used:
1)       Write the vocabulary word.
2)      Copy the definition of the word.
3)      Locate a sentence in a book using this word.  Write the entire sentence.
4)      Draw a picture, illustrating the meaning of the word.
5)      Write a caption for your picture, using the word in the caption.
6)      Write either a synonym for the word or an example of the word.
7)      How well do you understand the word?  (write the number from the choices below)
1.       I do not know the word at all.
2.       I know the word a little bit.
3.       I think I know what the word means, but I have a hard time explaining it.
4.       Oh, yeah!  I know that word!
In the beginning of using the above lexicon, I created a poster with the above information.  Then, every week, they would create a booklet and use that same pattern on each page for each vocabulary word.  I did NOT copy a page with that information for each word – that would have simply been a waste of time and resources.  As I have said in several other blog posts, one of my favorite sayings is “The one who does the work is the one who learns the most.” 
I have used several adaptations through the years to this lexicon.  Some items which I used at times were:  word origin, separate the word into syllables, write the pronunciation of the word, create your own sentence (though the caption replaced this one), write a simile or a metaphor for this word.  As you can see, the choices are endless what you can add.  I really don’t recommend adding more than one or two items to my above list unless you delete some items in the process. 
              If your child needs more than thirty minutes per day for this activity, lessen how much you expect.  You may only want him/her to do #1 & 2 on the first day, #3 & 4 on the second day, and #5 and 6 on the third day for each word.  Don’t forget to assign your child to do #7 every day, changing it as your child learns the word better.  Remember – you want your child to really learn the meaning and use of the word, not simply do “busy work.”  If these words are related to work you are doing in other lessons (which they should be), this will serve to enhance your child’s true understanding of these words. 
Don’t worry about your child getting bored with this work. At the beginning, I always had a portion of the class who were bored, yet they quickly got over it when they realized it that they were doing it anyway, bored or not.  Some children get out of a lot of work they don’t like by using this manipulative technique – by simply saying you’re bored, your teacher will change the assignment and the student ends up with less to do!   Also, as my students figured out we were doing it every week, many of my students would simply start making the booklets on Monday and wait for me to give the list of words, if I was not using a list from a textbook.  I just love self-motivated students!  If I ever said we were not doing the booklets one particular week, I always had complaints and confused expressions.  The students loved it, once they learned the pattern, and they really learned to use the words we used with a much greater depth than students in other classes with the same vocabulary list.
              By extremely limiting the amount of words per week your child must learn and by using a lexicon to deepen your child’s understanding, your child can know that “this word means what you think it means.”  The motivational speaker Florence Littauer shows that her father expressed the value of a large vocabulary much better than I can in her book "Silver Boxes":  “If you can speak well, use your words correctly, and talk faster than everybody else, you will always get jobs over people that mumble.”  Allow your child to explore his/her words so he can use them well.


  1. I've started a "Things to do Next Year" word document on my computer and put this idea at the top of the list! So, any idea where I should be pulling these vocabulary words FROM? Should I start looking at suggested lists online?

  2. Great question, Anita. The vocabulary should be related to other work you are doing. So, if you are studying the American Revolution, choose words related to what you are studying that week. For the first week of a unit, I like using general words for the subject (like revolution, rebellion, constitution, declaration, independence, and other words specifically from your objectives). During that week, look for words that aren't normally used in our household during the normal lessons. This does not have to be you looking for the words - I used to encourage my students to keep a Vocabulary Notebook for words that they kind of knew, but they didn't know well. Then, when I didn't have a specific list of words to use, we supplemented from that notebook.