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!”




The Argument Essay

My sixth- grade students are finishing up their argument essays this week. I have found the strategies angraphic organizer1d suggestions in The Research-Based Argument (Lucy Calkins, Mary Ehrenworth, and Annie Taranto) and by TCRWP invaluable.

In the past I’ve allowed my students to select individual arguments. I’m sure I’m not alone. I’m sure I’m not the only one who tried desperately to juggle 20 to 25 different topics and issues and provide feedback and support of great substance to each student. It’s an impossible task.

This year, my class chose one topic: Should animals be held in captivity. My students are doing some of the best writing I’ve seen in all of my years of teaching. Here’s why. Having one topic enables all students to engage in graphic organizer 1bconversations about an issue where they each can contribute. Have you ever had to peer-review a paper and struggled because you just didn’t feel knowledgeable about the topic? Sure, you’re able to provide feedback around the basics of writing: clarity, organization, style, mechanics. But when you know the topic well, there’s just so much more you can offer.

Together, we created a digital bin that contains interviews, videos, and articles about the topic animals in captivity. Although students are working with the same topic, they are each able to research individually by selecting the texts they want to read from the digital bin. Using graphic organizers as they navigate each text, students take notes on the different perspectives the texts provide and they collect researchable evidence that supports each perspective. Each day, students work in small groups to discuss the research they’ve read. Then they write researchable facts on sticky notes that give reasons for or against the issue.

Here’s a chart I created for my classroom, inspired by a similar chArgument Essay Chartart in The Research-Based Argument. This is such a helpful chart for all students, particular my novice readers and writers. As they continue to navigate the digital bins and research this topic, we are reminded that this is a complex issue and we discuss the importance of suspending judgment in order to glean as much information as we can from our resources.

This process provides a momentum and energy that I haven’t seen previously. As they finish up their essays this week and share their writing, students are able to get feedback from peers who know their topic well and can offer precise and sound advice to help make the writing stronger. Although the issue is the same, each student’s approach to constructing their research-based argument is different. And I’m able to support each of my students because we’re all immersed in common texts and steeped in a common knowledge

Joys of Teaching!


DanaSonja1For this Valentine’s Day post, we wanted to celebrate ten simple, everyday joys of being teachers.

We are still head over heels in love with teaching.

1. Having a window into the lives of my students and seeing what makes them glow. From getting a new puppy to winning a basketball tournament to celebrating a grandparent’s birthday. I love hearing about their special moments both inside and outside school. ~Sonja

2. When they can’t wait to tell me about a book they read and loved and plead for me to read it too. ~Sonja

3. Flipping the chart paper to a new, fresh piece. There is nothing better than new chart paper. Sorry ipad and document camera, I love you both too, but I love my chart paper most of all. ~Dana

4. When my students take ownership of a vocabulary word they learned months ago, like macabre, and use it accurately and authentically. ~Sonja

5. Changing the numbers on our “New Book Releases Countdowns.” Do you do this in your classroom? It’s a really fun way to get kids excited about books. ~Dananew releases

6. After years of teaching, reading picture books or poems, to students who have never heard it before, is the BEST! Seeing their eyes light up at the good parts is why I love reading aloud. (Reading favorites is awesome too!) ~Dana

7. To the Turbo Pencil Sharpener that has lasted far longer than its warrantee and is quick and quiet, XOXO ~Dana

8. Being thought of over the weekend and receiving baked goods (yes…they’re mostly cupcakes) they’ve made at home and brought in just for me 🙂 ~Sonja

9. The moment a student receives a letter in the mail from a beloved author. To all authors, your reply letters mean the world to students. It can be life changing for a reader. Thank you so much for your time! ~Dana

10. The confident, dazzling smiles on their faces when they know they’re on to something big in their writing. Love! Love! Love! ~Sonja