Vocabulary: Making Definitions Simple

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Students will be able to determine and clarify the meaning of words by shrinking dictionary definitions and matching definitions and pictures.

Big Idea

When dictionaries are just too much. . . definition shrinking and visualizing unfamiliar words.

Assessing Understanding of New Words

10 minutes

The previous day, students identified vocabulary words they were unfamiliar with.  Today, we are learning the words through direct instruction utilizing Marzano's six step strategy, but first, students are rating (evaluating) how well they understand each word.  I do this activity two different ways, depending on the time available, the phase of the moon, or what my students need.

Method 1

With this method, students divide their paper into three columns.  The columns are labeled 'Words I Know," "Words I Kind of Know," and "??????."  If a student has no idea what a word means and thinks I've quite possibly made the word up, it goes in the "?????" column.  If a student understand the meaning of the word and might be able to use it correctly, it would go in the "Words I Kind of Know" column.  If a student knows the word, can totally use it correctly, and can teach someone else, it would go int he "Words I Know" column.

 Method 2

This method requires students to evaluate their understanding of the word based on a scale of 1 to 4.  If a student rates A word as a 1 they do not understand the meaning.  A 2 means they sort of understand, but it's a very general understanding and they probably couldn't tell someone else. A 3 means that they understand it and nothing is confusing.  A 4 means that they understand it so well they could teach it to others. They record this information on a chart (see image below).  See the blue arrow?  There's two lines of numbers.  They circle the number on the first line to show their initial understanding.  Once the teaching has been done, students revisit this chart and reevaluate their understanding.


Explaining the Meaning of Words by Shrinking Definitions

15 minutes

I told students that dictionary definitions are the best and worst thing in the entire world.  They are the best thing because you can read all the definitions of a single word, you can see a bunch of synonyms, and you get all the information you would ever need for a particular word.  Those reasons are also why dictionary definitions are the worst things in the world.

I then gave students the definition handout and told students that we were going to work on reading dictionary definitions and making them smaller so that they would be easier to remember.  (N.B. I have two versions of this handout.  One includes the words for students who are absent.  The other handout does not include the words so students focus on definitions and pictures, rather than words, in the second step.)

When I model, I like to start with the hardest definition.  For this modeling, I pretended that I was a seventh grader who was very frustrated with having to read a dictionary definition, as some of my students are.  I read the definition aloud as if I were confused and had no idea what the definition was saying.  I paused to show that I was thinking and said that I was now going to cross out any words I  [the seventh grader] didn't understand.  I also crossed out any words or ideas that repeated.  The goal was to shrink down the definition to two to six easily understood words.

In the original definition of conviction, I crossed out "fixed" because I didn't understand what a fixed belief was.  I also crossed out the "act of moving a person by argument or evidence to belief, agreement, consent" because I had no idea what that meant. That means that I was left with a simple definition--a strong belief.  However, there's another definition, which is quite common with Tier 2 vocabulary words.  For the second definition, rather than crossing out words, I paraphrased them and reordered them.  I shrunk it down to a simple "a judge or jury decides someone is guilty." You can also see a video of my modeling of this word here.

Here's another example with the word catechism. The phrase "especially a book containing such instruction" is extra, so I crossed that out.  "Doctrine?" Cross that out 'cause what in the world is doctrine? I'm left with "instruction by a series of questions and answers on religious."  That can then be reordered to "religious teaching with a series of questions and answers."  I'm left with a simple definition that I understand and can easily remember.

After I shrunk two to four definitions (depending on the class), I asked students to work together in their groups to complete the rest of the definitions.  I gave students dry erase boards and markers so they could use those to revise their definitions.While students worked, I walked around to help students who were stuck, not crossing anything out, crossing everything out, etc. 

Once students are comfortable with this process, I plan to take myself out of the process and use either actual paper dictionaries (does anyone even use that anymore?) or, possibly even better, the website Wordnik. Wordnik collects definitions of words from multiple sources, include synonyms and antonyms, word origins, and examples.  There's even a word of the day feature. 

Responding in Writing

5 minutes

To demonstrate students understanding of the words so far, I asked them to write a short paragraph using at least five of the words they'd learned. In addition, they could also let me know which words they were struggling with and needed more help on.