Early Societies: Vocabulary Skill Building

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Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases as they are used in a social studies text.

Big Idea

Build critical thinking skills as the students learn about the development of agriculture among early humans.

Preparation: Before the students arrive...


The day before this lesson students participate in a Quick Scan activity. On a large sheet of chart paper list the important words related to the study of Early Societies, the current unit in social studies class. Each student is given 2 green stickers and 2 red stickers. They place the green ones next to words they know and understand well, and the red stickers next to words they are less sure of. When everyone finishes, determine the six words with the most red stickers. These are the ones that become the focus of this lesson. This active learning strategy allows students an important say in the direction the class will take.

Introduce & Demonstrate the Frayer Model Graphic Organize

15 minutes
Today's class begins with a review the previous day’s Quick Scan chart to identify the six vocabulary terms from that the students determine to be the most challenging from the current unit of study in social studies class: agriculture, civilization, domestication, irrigation, specialization and technology. I let the students know that the reason we will spend time increasing our understanding of these terms is because they will set a foundation for the study of ancient civilizations throughout the year. Since these are words that we will encounter often, taking an in-depth look at them now will help students build understanding.

At this point I introduce the blank Frayer model graphic organizer and describe its five components: a spot for writing the focus word, definition, characteristics, examples and non-examples. There is even a space at the bottom of the page for a small illustration, which is helpful for both visual learners and doodlers.

We discuss what resources are useful for a word study and how information on unknown/unfamiliar words is found. The list the students generate includes: context clues, textbook glossary, dictionary and thesaurus. Be sure to have a variety of these resources available whether electronic or in print!

The next step is to model how to fill in the graphic organizer. As an example the class works together on the word civilization by rereading the textbook and by making use of the dictionary and even a thesaurus. Students cite evidence from these sources and what we eventually come up with is this:

  • Definition: a human society with an advanced level of development in social and political organization and in the arts and sciences.
  • Characteristics: large population; cities; specialization; artisans; social class; trade; technology; government; public buildings; religion.
  • Examples: Ancient – Greece, Rome, Egypt; Modern – USA; China; England.
  • Non-examples: hunter-gatherers; prehistoric/prehistory; Stone Age

The most challenging section turns out to be non-examples! That part really takes some out of the box thinking: no longer are we looking for what is in the text but what is missing from it. Some thoughts on how and why this graphic organizer appear here:

Small Group Work

25 minutes

Now it 's time for the students to work with greater independence. I assign them to small groups of with the goal of completing organizers for one word from our list. They use textbooks and other resources find the information and each person fills in a chart. Most groups assign one person to each section but some choose to work their way through each section together. Once the group is done, transfer their information onto large chart paper or create a PowerPoint or other digital presentation to share with the class. In this way, everyone gains a deeper understanding of each of the words.

In order to be prepared to help and guide each group, I prepare a cheat sheet with information on each of the terms.

To extend the activity and for fast finishers, students can work on the back of the worksheet. They will copy the sentence from where the word was found in one of the resources, brainstorm the kinds of people who might use this word and how it might be used. This work can be challenging but they really do enjoy it.


10 minutes

As a summarizer, the students complete an exit ticket that encourages them to reflect on the work done in class today. Before leaving they take some to sit quiet and consider their own strengths and weaknesses regarding the vocabulary reviewed today. Oftentimes, they also take this as an opportunity to think about how they interacted with peers and how well they followed directions. These points are important for their academic growth and will continue to be important in college and career settings too.