Teaching vocabulary in reading context with four-letter words

I have a spreadsheet of four-letter words.

Not those words.

My words are common words that can be used as more than one part of speech and/or in different contexts thereby changing the words’ meaning.

photo collage showing 3 turtles, 2 frogs, and a football team

Here’s what I’m thinking of using as an informal writing activity to arouse some interest in the boring but vital topic of the value and limits of using context in determining a word’s meaning. This activity is suitable for high school and college students.

Step 1. [Me to students] I’m going to show you five words. I want you to tell me in a sentence or two  if there are any of these words whose definition you aren’t sure you know. Here is the list:

  • test
  • mess
  • knot
  • walk
  • team

In your response, mention the words whose meanings you know and the ones whose meaning you aren’t sure about. You have 30 seconds to write.

[Students write.]

photo collage of people walking, two snails, and a duck

Step 2. [Me:] Now let’s see if you really know the meanings of those words.

I’m going to read you five clues [displayed or in hard copy so students can refer to them]. On your paper, beside the clue’s number, write the word that fits.  You have 90 seconds. [Read clues aloud.]

  1. You wouldn’t like finding one of these in your shoelace or in your shoes.
  2. Don’t ruffle members’ feathers by cheering.
  3. You take it in school, but a clam carries one everywhere.
  4. This moves slowly, but you could take a quick one.
  5. Unless you’re an iguana, if you make one, you clean it up.

Those are the clues. On your paper, beside the clue’s number, write the word that fits.  You have 90 seconds.

[Students write.]

Step 3. Give correct answers.  Students grade themselves.

Step 4.  In no more than three complete sentences, explain what this rather silly quiz shows that is important for you to know to be a good reader.  You have two minutes to write.

[Students write.]

Step 5. In no more than three complete sentences, explain something taking this silly quiz shows you that’s important for you to know to be a good writer. You have two minutes to write.

[Students write.]

Next steps. This informal writing forces all students to think about the process of deciphering a “strange word” they encounter in their reading. Some students will be able to figure out at least a couple correct answers from the total quiz context, but still not know the meaning of the term.

I’d probably have students work in pairs or small groups to find the actual meanings of the terms in the contexts indicated in the clues.

One point of the activity is to show students that they can use reading context to make educated guesses about words they don’t know, but to be sure they guessed correctly, they need to check a dictionary.

The second point is to show students that as writers they often need to provide indirect definitions of words (for example, by using synonyms) to help readers who may be unfamiliar with a term they use in a restricted or technical sense.

FYI A test is the hard outer covering of certain invertebrates, such as the clam. The other four words in the quiz are group names. A group of frogs is a knot. A group of snails is a walk.  A group of ducks is a team. A group of iguanas is a mess.

Comments? questions?

Build in-context vocabulary lists

List of word lists for SAT preparation
Words without context

Most vocabulary builders work in isolation. VocabGrabber works on vocabulary in the context of reading material that you — or your students — create from assigned reading.

By using VocabGrabber, you can develop vocabulary lists from any digitized text.  That means you can build a vocabulary list for your students knowing they will encounter those words in their reading. Words they use are more likely to be remembered than those they merely memorize for a quiz.

VocabGrabber is easy to use

You (or your students) paste a copied passage into the box on the VocabGrabber page and hit the button. (Or if you’ve installed the program in your browser, you can just click the bookmarklet to start the analysis without copying and pasting.) The software analyzes the passage and produces information about words used in it.

The data includes:

  • Word frequency (a key to thesis or theme identification).
  • Relationships of words to each other.
  • Parts of speech of the words as used in the passage.
  • Whether the word is part of a specialized vocabulary, such as technology, history or geography.
  • Definitions of words in the passage with illustrations of the word use in context.

Lists aid reading of complex texts

Being able to generate vocabulary lists easily simplifies preparing students for the kinds of deep analysis they need to read complex texts. By creating and comparing lists for different texts your students must read within a course or across the curriculum, you can determine which terms are most important to teach: They’ll appear on several lists.

Although VocabGrabber is a great tool for teaching literacy, it has two limitations:

  • It does not replace teaching. You have to show students how and why to use the tool.
  • Users need digitized text; print materials won’t work.

If you are teaching a literary classic in the public domain (a Jane Austen novel, for example), or using articles from an online database, finding digital copies won’t be a problem.

If you want Josh and Caitlin to work with their history textbook, you may not find a digital copy.


An earlier version of this article appeared in June 2009 issue of Writing Points © 2009 Linda Aragoni