Vocabulary: Word Gradients


Sonja recently wrote a post about ways we need to change our vocabulary instruction in Wordshop. I admit that I find it challenging to teach vocabulary in my classroom. I hate to blame time constraints, but I do struggle to find enough time to do Wordshop justice.

Like many middle school teachers, I have 50 minutes a day to teach language arts. This means that my Wordshop needs to be under 10 minutes- preferably 5 minutes. I simply must devote the majority of the class time to reading and writing. So I gauge my vocabulary lessons to be about 5 minutes. These lessons are not about memorizing lists of words but about wordshopping- exploring language. These lessons are print rich and word rich.

This is one of my favorite Wordshop 5 Minute Lessons. My students and I come up with a word like “walk.” Students brainstorm in 1 minute words that are similar to “walk.” They might ask themselves, “How do people move? What are other words are like walk?” Next, we make a quick list on the white board (1 minute). Then students create a “Word Gradient” like the one below (2 minutes). Then we share.


Here is what this activity looks like in one of my student’s notebook. On this day, we talked about types of fish (because that was what they were studying in science) and we created a word gradient about the size of the fish. As you can see, this activity is not about synonyms, it’s about the nuances between words. What are the slight differences between words? How many words do we know about this topic or category?

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This is one of my favorite quick, 5 minute Wordshop activities. It is especially helpful during Writing Workshop because students can return to the Wordshop section of their notebooks for lists of words to use in their writing. They can be Word Choosy! In future posts, I’ll share more of my 5 minute Wordshop activities. Let me know what you think.



Dana Johansen spends her time teaching fifth grade in surprisingly snowy Connecticut, taking long walks in the woods with her yellow lab, and reading the False Prince series by Jennifer Nielsen. Dana was very excited to find out what was at the bottom of 10x on the show, The Curse of Oak Island, last week. She has taught elementary and middle school for fourteen years. Dana is a doctoral student at Teachers College, Columbia University where she studies blended learning in reading and writing workshop. She believes in balanced blended learning and is the co-author of Teaching Interpretation: Using Text-Based Evidence to Construct Meaning and Flip Your Writing Workshop. 


Word Work Wednesday- Noun or Verb?

If you’re like me and only have 5-7 mins a day for word work, then you’re constantly looking for lessons that pack the most powerful punches. This lesson does just that! It doubles vocabulary instruction with grammar. Pow!

The English language is fickle. We have so many meanings for words. Table can be a noun (as in the piece of furniture) or it can be a verb (as in saving something for a later time.) Most students are familiar with the noun, but are they familiar with the verb? Studying words that can be both nouns and verbs can be fun!

Nouns & Verbs:

ski                              bargain                         hunt

chair                          shop                               bump

ruin                           fly                                   grimace

cloud                         joke                                milk

One of the hardest components of teaching vocabulary is helping students learn the many meanings of words. I like to begin here- with nouns and verbs. These words allow for great entry-point conversations about words because students are usually familiar with at least one meaning. Students have a lot of fun creating sentences that include both forms of the word.

“We tabled the discussion about the new dining room table for the night.”

As the year goes on, I add more layers. We look at words that are nouns, verbs, and adjectives (such as the word light.)

For extra fun, ask your students to get really creative and make a case for sentences or word combinations where “table” acts as an adjective? (table-top counter, table lamp, table hockey?) Where it can get really interesting is when students try adding suffixes to table to make it into an adjective (tablific? or tablesque?) You may be surprised by what they create. Here is Shelby’s sentence:

“She looked at the towering building with its black table roof.”

You can see here that Shelby used the word “table” creatively to  create an interesting image in her reader’s mind. This quick and fun word work activity can pack a powerful punch in less than 5-7 minutes. Enjoy!

Word Work Wednesday- Categories Vocabulary

One of my favorite strategies for teaching vocabulary and spelling is to use categories for brainstorming words with my students. Students nominate a category (or I choose) and we brainstorm as many words as we can that fall into that category. Kinds of fruit? Types of desserts? Pizza toppings? Things found in a medieval castle? Types of musical instruments? Synonyms for “run”? Antonyms for “scary”? Brainstorming lists can be a quick, fun way to engage students in conversations about vocabulary (and spelling!) Just think of all the words your class can generate together! Some of the especially difficult spelling words can even go on a list of special “Challenge Words.” Students love this strategy for learning vocabulary and the categories are endless.

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