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. 


Re-envisioning Vocabulary Instruction

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Word Map by 6th graders

Think back to how vocabulary was taught when you were in school. Chances are, you may have been assigned twenty to twenty-five words to define and use in a sentence. And like me, you may have been warned by your teacher to write sentences that “show you really know what each word means and how to use them.” This was always challenging for me, because of course I didn’t really understand what most of the words meant and how to use them, even after looking them up in the dictionary.

Like me, you may have received a random list of words assigned by your teacher removed from any context that might have helped to bring about a conceptual understanding of the words in action. Needless to say, my vocabulary homework grades were often disappointing. I’d then try to make up for this by memorizing synonyms of these words for the weekly vocabulary quizzes each Friday. I’d manage to do well but would then forget everything by Monday. For me, this work was isolating, and I felt frustrated.

Decades later as a 6th grade teacher, I knew this approach to vocabulary instruction might cause my students to feel the way I did. How then could I teach vocabulary purposefully and meaningfully? One year, Dr. Lydia Soifer, a language pathologist, visited my school and unpacked the process of word acquisition during a staff development meeting. Her presentation validated my feelings as a frustrated 6th grader and as a teacher who desperately wanted to provide meaningful vocabulary instruction.

My list of essential do’s and don’ts of vocabulary instruction are inspired by the work and research of Dr. Lydia Soifer, Dr. Isabel Beck, Dr. Margaret McKeown, Dr. Linda Kucan and other educators whose work rescues me in the classroom daily.

Do… Don’t…
encourage students to work in partnerships or small groups. Talking is essential to learning new words. require students to learn words in isolation. Asking students to make sense of multiple unfamiliar words is frustrating!


ask students to create word maps! They’re fantastic and fun! They focus on students developing a strong conceptual understanding of words without the pressure of using them in a sentence right away. (Example above)


ask students to use each word in a sentence too soon. Imagine just learning how to drive and that the expectation was for you to parallel park perfectly the first time out!


provide words in context.  When students can see the word being used, they can begin to determine when and how to use the word. My word lists provide a sentence for each word so students can see them live and in action! assign words without support. Since we know many words have multiple meanings and can be used multiple ways depending on the context, our students shouldn’t be left to decipher which way to go with just a list and no real direction.


consider the number of words assigned. Many experts agree that ten words per week are enough. overwhelm students with dozens of words to learn in one week. Maybe they’ll memorize what’s needed for weekly quizzes, but retaining the information will be challenging.



Discussion is essential in vocabulary instruction. In my classroom, wordshop is as lively as reading workshop. Students work together and talk a lot! It is through these conversations around words and how they are used that my students develop the strongest conceptual understanding of them; stronger than any dictionary or thesaurus could provide alone. This is not to say that we don’t value and use these resources. We do! But when my students talk, grapple with, and debate the meaning of words, I know they are on the path toward acquisition of them.


Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction by Isabel Beck, Margaret G. McKeown, and Linda Kucan.

Learning Words Inside & Out by Nancy Frey and Douglas Fisher




Word Work Wednesday- Increase Student Engagement with Grammar! March forth!

Happy National Grammar Day! It’s the only calendar date that is a command- March forth! I will be wearing my favorite Grammar Day shirt to work today! Screen Shot 2015-03-04 at 5.32.22 AM

Teaching grammar with a sense of humor is important. Let’s face it, grammar is important. Where the comma goes can make all the difference in a sentence. Where the apostrophe goes can alter the entire meaning of a word or sentence. Grammar matters. Teaching grammar, however, can sometimes be arduous and tedious. Teaching grammar with humor can liven up any lesson and help students understand why grammar is important.

Student engagement is key! Here are some tips for teaching grammar with humor.

1) Get this book: Biggest Riddle Book in the World by Joseph Rosenbloom. Screen Shot 2015-03-04 at 5.42.09 AM

Begin your week, your day, or your lesson with a riddle from this book. Students love trying to figure out the answers to the riddles. Wordplay is essential for understanding grammar. Understanding the correct usage and multiple usages of words is important and fun!

2) Photos of Grammar Missteps- Whenever I am outside of school and I see a grammar misstep,  I snap a picture of it to share with my students. I ask them if they can spot the error. These are enjoyable for my students because they recognize familiar locations in my photos, and they enjoy doing some detective work to spot the error. If you google grammar and BuzzFeed, you’ll get many links for grammar missteps.

3) Get this book too: Jokelopedia: The Biggest, Best, Silliest, Dumbest Joke Screen Shot 2015-03-04 at 5.57.57 AMBook Ever! by Eva Blank, et al. Students love jokes. And the best part about using jokes to teach grammar is that they are filled with puns, wordplay, and word usage. “Why was the rabbit unhappy?” She was having a bad hare day.


4) Mad Libs- These never get old for students. They love them!Screen Shot 2015-03-04 at 6.02.14 AM There are even Mad Libs apps and websites now, but I prefer holding the Mad Libs pad and writing them down with my whole class. Not only do they review the parts of speech, but they also review vocabulary. Next time, you do Mad Libs with your students, have them use ONLY words from the word wall or vocabulary list. They will surely get creative.

5) Comics! My students love comics, and I love teaching with them. I could write an entire blog post on the joy of teaching with comics. Comics can help our students learn so many important language arts skills– inferencing, interpretation, character traits, symbolism, themes, compare/contrast, cause/effect… the list goes on and on. I try to show my students one comic a day. Not only does it engage them–because comics can be hilarious!– it also helps them learn grammar. The use of punctuation and wordplay is fantastic. I ask my students two questions with each comic I give them “What is happening?” and “What do you notice?” These questions can lead to very interesting conversations about grammar and punctuation.

I’m sure there are many more engaging ways to teach grammar, and we would love to hear them! Please leave a comment below about fun ways to teach grammar.




Even 15 Minutes a Day for Reading Makes a Difference

Screen Shot 2015-02-11 at 11.21.46 AMDo you have 40-60 minutes a day to teach reading, writing, and word work? I do. I am a middle school English teacher. When I started teaching middle school, I wondered how I was going to include independent reading time. The answer: 15 minutes of no-nonsense reading a day.

I had a student once ask me, “Aren’t you supposed to be teaching me during this time?” At first I was horrified by this question. But then I understood the confusion. Independent reading is so enjoyable that it doesn’t feel like school work. In fact, for many students, it doesn’t feel like work at all. But it is! It’s very important work, and it’s my job to help students understand that one way readers become better readers is by reading on their own- and reading a lot! So to this student, I replied, “Do you play soccer during soccer practice? Do you play the piano during your piano lesson? Do you do math problems during math class? Yes? In reading and writing class, you need to read and write. You’re becoming a stronger reader by reading. Look at all the books you’ve read this year. You’ve grown so much as a reader!”

How does 15 minutes of independent reading help grow readers and change my class?

1) 15 minutes is enough time to hook a reluctant reader! Simply starting a book can be the hook they need! So many books disappear from my shelves during reading time. As they begin new books, they take them home to read, and bring them back to continue reading the next day. 15 minutes can make all the difference in the life of a reluctant reader. They have eyes on print for an hour and fifteen minutes a week during my class.

2) Talk and Write! Independent reading time provides opportunities, after students read, for students to talk and write about their reading. Students are bursting to share what they’re reading, recommend books to others, write about their thinking, and share new words they’re coming across.

3) Saves time! Who would have ever thought that 15 minutes could save me class time? But it does! My students are relaxed and quiet after independent reading. They are settled down and ready for  learning. After reading, they listen more carefully to my minilessons and we move through material faster. I’ve actually gained back time!

4) Joy! My students love reading and they love coming to class. They read everything- graphic novels, picture books, poetry books, chapter books, and nonfiction. They’re happy. Reading brings so much joy to our classroom!

5) Growing readers. 15 minutes a day grows ALL readers- avid and reluctant. They’re moving forward as they practice reading. All the proof I need is in their reading assessments, where I see them move through the reading levels. I wish we could spend more time each day on independent reading. But even 15 minutes makes a difference!



Typically found wearing mismatched socks, Dana Johansen spends her time teaching fifth grade in Connecticut, negotiating with her yellow lab about doggy dinner options, and plopping down on the floor in bookstore aisles to find new reads. 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.


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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Be “Word Choosy” with Word Gradients

greenEvery literacy teacher thinks about ways to teach word choice. From mentor texts to word study, teachers search for ways to help their students become “word choosy.” This is because we want our students to choose their words with purpose. We want them to think about nuance and connotation. We want them to consider how words are slightly different from each other. For example, what makes the word lope different from bound.

I have LOVED reading Word Savvy by M. Brand; Words, Words, Words by J. Allen; and Bringing Words to Life by Beck, McKeown, and Kucan. I’ve looked for ways to strengthen my vocabulary instruction, and these resources have been invaluable. In addition, my go-to word sort activities come from the Words Their Way series.

However, it was an article I read in 2007 from The Reading Teacher journal, called “Overlapping Vocabulary and Comprehension: Context Clues Complement Semantic Gradients” by Greenwood & Flanigan, that changed the way I teach word choice. This article taught me how to use word gradients in the classroom. Word Gradients, also referred to as Word Spectrums, are like word number lines. They are one way to sort, categorize, and organize words so students can see the nuances between the words in order to be “word choosy.”

The purpose of this vocabulary strategy is NOT to teach synonyms but to teach the small nuances between words. In order to use this vocabulary strategy, choose a category of words. This category might be: “Movement Words” (i.e. crawl, walk, sprint); “Speaking Words” (i.e. whisper, shout, yell); “Red Color Words” (i.e. crimson, rose, garnet); “Names of Birds” (sparrow, humming bird, owl.) See the list below of Word Gradient categories I’ve used.


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Create (or have your students create) words in these categories. Next, have your students sort these words- see example below. Discuss and debate the nuances between words that are very close in meaning. These “shades of meaning” are important, and students should discuss when they would use certain words versus others.

Generating these gradients helps students see the differences between words, and it also allows them to see how many words we have in the English language that they can choose from. Encouraging students to be “Word Choosy” helps students be as specific and purposeful as possible in their writing.

Screen shot 2014-04-12 at 12.26.32 PMSome people have asked me, “How do your students sort color words? Or types of bread?” For color words, we sort by lightest shade to darkest (using paint chips helps!) For bread, we sort by smallest to largest, or by time of day when you might eat that bread, or by importance (common, everyday bread vs. special occasions.)

Categories of Words: Movement Words; Speaking Words; Words for Large/Small; Quick/Slow; Strong/Weak; Ugly/Beautiful; Scared/Brave; Kind/Mean; Color Words; Words for flying, falling, jumping, etc.; Types of Bread; Chocolate; Candy; Shirts/Pants; Shoes; Desserts; Vegetables; Transportation; Fruits; Seafood; Trees; Small & Large animals; Flowers. Of course, within each category, you can find sub categories. For example, you could spend weeks just sorting flowers–> Flowers you’d find in someone’s garden, large/small flowers; wild flowers, flowers at the grocery store, flowers on trees, flowers of a certain color, flowers that are symbolic, etc.

Enjoy! Have fun being “word choosy!”