Category Archives: vocabulary building

How to use vocabulary workbooks as the basis for writing lessons

Teachers and tutors, do you want to save time and get double or triple use from the same source?  Use your students’ vocabulary workbook to teach writing.

EPSON MFP imageMany of my  students use the Wordly Wise 3000 series (which I recommend).  It has 20 lessons per booklet, one booklet per grade, first through twelfth.  In each lesson is an annotated list of new vocabulary words plus exercises using the words.

Like other vocabulary building series, each lesson also has a reading selection in which each new vocabulary word is used.  These reading selections are followed by many questions asking the student to use one of the new vocabulary words in a complete sentence answer.

But other ways to use the vocabulary and reading selections augment their original purpose and make them valuable as writing tools.  Here are some I have used.

  • Summarizing.  I teach students to underline the most important or key words in each paragraph.  Next, I show how to analyze each paragraph and to write an identification in the margin next to the paragraph.  Those phrases might be “dodo bird’s appearance,” “raising $ for Statue of Liberty base,” or “Renaissance dates and definition.”  Then, using the underlines and margin information, I teach the student to write a summary of each paragraph in about one or two sentences.  When he is done, he has a good summary of the reading selection.
  • Paraphrasing.  Taking one sentence at a time, I ask students to rewrite the sentence, keeping the meaning but changing the sentence structure and, where possible, the vocabulary.
  • Writing RACE responses.  I write a question based on the article.  Then I ask the student to respond using the RACE format (Repeat the question, Answer the question, Cite part of the article used as evidence, and Elaborate on that evidence with more evidence).
  • Writing sentences using new vocabulary words.  So many times students can define a word but they cannot use it properly in a sentence. I ask them to write sentences using vocabulary words. This shows their weakness in understanding certain words and helps me to explain the words better to them.
  •  Writing paragraphs using new vocabulary words.  I ask students to write each new word in a coherent paragraph or two. Writing a paragraph takes more skill than writing independent sentences.  Not only does the student need to know how to use the word, but he needs to know its noun, adjective and verb forms and whether it is the best word in a given situation.  Forming a coherent whole takes imagination and hard work.
  • Writing narratives.  Put a person or animal into the nonfiction situation in the reading passage and write about it. What if you were a dodo bird encountering your first human being?  What if you were a Cherokee forced to say good-bye to your land in North Carolina and trek toward the unknown?  What if you were Leonardo’s apprentice, entrusted to carry the rolled up canvas of the Mona Lisa from Florence to France?

If you are teaching children to write, you know that coming up with a writing topic is tedious.  But by using the reading selections from the vocabulary workbooks, the subject matter is identified, the student has prior knowledge, and the vocabulary words are identified.

There is no need to reinvent the wheel.

Four kinds of words, some good, some not so good

Words can be divided into four kinds, according to a popular business writing blogger.*   Let me paraphrase his four kinds of words:

  • Common words, or everyday words that you can expect your reading audience to know without explanation.
  • Jargon, or words specific to the field you are writing about.  If you are writing about math, for example, you might use “function” and “algorithm,” and expect your audience to understand.  But for new or unusual math words, or for children, you would offer definitions.
  • 50-cent words, usually with many syllables or from another language.  These words are intended to impress people or to act as shibboleths showing that the writer is an insider.  Such words could include “esprit de corps,” “modicum,” and “Neolithic.”
  • Unusual words which hook or delight a reader.  Such words might include “pique” and “hardscrabble,” or for a young child, “triceratops” or “tyrannosaurus.”

How often should you or your students use each type of word?  According to the business blogger,

  • Common words—90 percent of the time
  • Jargon—as needed for your topic, but be sure to define new or rarely heard words
  • 50-cent words—never
  • Unusual words—just a little bit

When teaching writing to children, I find that they stick to the commonest of common words unless they are prodded to try new words..  To expand their vocabularies, I suggest what to them seem like 50-cent words.  If they have heard a word before, they might try it out, but if they haven’t heard it, they prefer to stick to comfortable, overused words.

Children who come from enriched backgrounds have large common word vocabularies.  Children from impoverished backgrounds have small common word vocabularies.  What can seem like a common word to one kindergartener can bewilder another.  It’s important for children’s writing to sound like their own writing, not their teacher’s, so their backgrounds need to be considered if you attempt to stretch their vocabularies with new words.

However, when writing about a particular topic, children need to use the precise vocabulary of that topic.  Words like “pollution” and “predator” should be expected when talking about the environment. Even though these words might seem strange at first, their precision is what makes them useful.  Children need to use the correct names of concepts.

As for unusual words, I encourage children to use one or two to add sparkle to their writing.  Often their “unusual” is my “ordinary,” but if using a particular word delights a child, I encourage it.


Use a thesaurus to write better

A thesaurus is a book or online source for finding synonyms and antonyms of words.  Here is how a thesaurus can improve your writing.

  • A thesaurus can suggest a variety of words to replace a generic or overused word. For example, the word “ran” can mean “raced,” “rushed” and “hurried.”
  • A thesaurus can offer a more precise word to replace a general word. For example, “ran” can mean “sprinted,” “loped” or “leaped.”
  • A thesaurus can offer nuances for words which have shades of meaning. For example, “to run” a business can mean “to regulate,” “to manage” or to “carry on.”
  • A thesaurus can jump start your brain with words you might not have considered. For example, “to run into debt” can mean “to incur” or “to acquire” debt.

But using a thesaurus can lead to problems.

  • Since not all synonyms for the same word are synonyms for each other, you must be sure of the meaning of a suggested word before you use it. Using a dictionary to find the precise meaning of a thesaurus-suggested word is a way to avoid this problem.
  • Some synonyms can sound pretentious when you want to write simply, or some synonyms can sound casual or even childlike when you want to write seriously. If you are writing fiction, a long word in the mouth of a child can sound ridiculous.  So can a slang word in the mouth of a courtroom attorney.
  • Some synonyms can sound unnatural for you, the writer. For example, I tend to write using short words of Anglo-Saxon origin, so long Latinate words sound wrong for my writing style.  Sometimes I look up a synonym and decide that the simple word I started out with is the best choice.

One more word on thesauruses.  (Or is it thesauri?)  Different kinds exist, ranging from a children’s thesaurus with pictures and limited words (meant for a beginning reader and writer) to an adult thesaurus (meant for fourth or fifth graders and older).

For serious writers, I recommend the Roget’s International Thesaurus.  This thesaurus is a two-part version, requiring you to look up a word (such as run) and then decide on the general meaning you are seeking.  When you find that meaning, you go to a different part of the book for a more detailed list of synonyms.  Compared to a one-step thesaurus, the results of this two-step thesaurus—precision, nuances and sheer number of synonyms—are superior but more time-consuming.

How to write clearly for future generations

Among the hardest materials for students to read today are the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution (Lexile scores 1350 and 1560 respectively). Because Thomas Jefferson knew future generations would be reading his words in the Declaration of Independence, he wrote them as carefully as possible in 1776.  Even so, they are difficult to understand by his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandchildren’s generation.

Many reasons exist for this difficulty, including sentence structure, sentence length, relative pronouns, and vocabulary. I would like to analyze the first paragraph of the Declaration to see what we can learn from words Thomas Jefferson penned 240 years ago in order to improve our writing today.

Thomas Jefferson thinking about words to use in Declaration of Independence, with a modern-day child suggesting a word

Here is the Declaration’s original first paragraph:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

To begin, this paragraph is a single, 71-word sentence. We know that the more words a sentence contains, the harder it is to understand (unless the sentence is a list). If a sentence of 30 words is pushing it, a sentence of 71 words is beyond what most people can follow. Many working memories stop after the second clause.

Secondly, this 71-word sentence contains six clauses plus infinitive phrases and prepositional phrases. Three clauses in a single sentence are sometimes two too many for clear understanding. But six?

Another difficulty is the pronoun “which.” It is used three times to introduce three dependent clauses.

But perhaps the greatest problem to modern readers is the vocabulary. Many words are familiar words used in unfamiliar ways. For example, the fourth word, “course” is a word we use all the time today (a math course, the course of a river, of course), but the meaning used in the Declaration is “progress or advancement” which is no longer its primary meaning.

When “course” is combined with “events” to form the phrases “in the course of human events,” the meaning becomes more muddled. What if Jefferson had written, “When, during human history”? Wouldn’t those words have said the same thing yet made more sense? To us, yes. But Jefferson was writing the most formal document of his life.  He chose to use formal language—formal even for the 18th century.

What if Jefferson had written something like this instead?

Sometimes a group of people need to sever their political connections with another group of people and to become an independent country. When this happens, they should explain why they are separating.

My 32 words are not nearly as elegant as Jefferson’s, but to modern ears, they are easier to understand (39 fewer words; two sentences instead of one; one simple sentence and one complex sentence with just one dependent clause; and everyday vocabulary).

Think ahead 240 years to the year 2256. Will Americans then still find my words easy to understand? How can we write diaries, letters, memoirs or war stories  which will make sense to our descendants?

  • Above all, write clearly.
  • Write short sentences.
  • Write mostly simple sentences.
  • Limit the number of dependent clauses to one per sentence.
  • Make sure pronouns have clearly identified antecedents.
  • Use everyday vocabulary.


What are the most overused words?

An end-of-year review of the most overused words of 2015 suggested that “so” is the winner.

I have to agree. During the past year I have become aware that “so” is used more and more by someone being interviewed to begin a response.

Interviewer: What does the latest poll show about the candidates?
Interviewee: So, the latest poll. . .

Over time, the way we speak becomes the way we write.  Many of my students begin sentences with “so.” Usually this is when they are thinking about a cause and an effect.

For example, The mother gave the baby a bottle. So the baby stopped crying. So the mother turned off the light. So the baby went to sleep.

Many other words are overused by children learning to write. Among the ones I see the most are

  • “Then.” Children are thinking about a sequence of actions and use “then” to show that one action follows another.
  • “A lot.” Students use “a lot” or “lots” when they too lazy or tired to write a specific amount.  Recommend using a number, even an estimate, as an alternative.
  • “Thing.” (Also “something,” “anything,” and “everything.”)  Ask the student writer to be specific. Using “thing” is a habit of laziness.

The easiest way to correct the overuse of a word is to let the student write the overused word in his rough draft.  When it is time to revise, ask the student to circle the culprit word.   Ask him what he notices.  Usually he will sheepishly respond that he has used a word too many times.  Offer suggestions on how to improve the writing.