The Art of Vocabulary – Word Scales

Scale with heavy bag and light feather

English has a long history of borrowing words from every language it meets. In fact, English has humorously been called a thug who hides out in alleys to mug other languages and rifle through their pockets for loose vocabulary!

The English habit of acquiring new words has led to a very synonym-rich language. This can be frustrating or exciting to young readers. It also allows growing writers to express themselves with creativity or precision, depending on their purpose. But synonyms can be tricky to master, requiring years to grow a vocabulary that is deep enough to take advantage of both their subtlety and power.

So whether your students are new to the concept of synonyms, or they need a stronger understanding of the difficulty in substituting one word for another, look for opportunities to help them practice . . . and grow their vocabulary in the process. The following Word Scale activity is a fun way to recognize that word choice can have real impact on a reader or writer!

How to Make a Word Scale

Sink with hot water coming out of the faucetStudents pick a descriptive word (maybe from a passage they are studying). Then they make a three-panel comic strip (either vertical or horizontal) and draw a picture to represent their word in one of the three panels.

Next, students look for synonyms and examine each one to decide its meaning relative to the original word. Words often represent objects, concepts, or ideas and, therefore, they tend to conjure up thoughts and images as we hear them. For example, a word like hot imparts an instant meaning or thought. If we say the water is hot, we know to be careful putting our hand in it.

Boiling water in a pot on a stove

However, if we say the water is boiling, our minds now have a more precise image of just how hot the water is, and we are probably picturing water that is even hotter than the original image of hot water that we conjured.

Even though both words describe water that is warmer than you might automatically expect, the word boiling is more “intense” or carries more weight on the hot scale.

Students will use this “intensity” of meaning to build their 3-panel word scale where the subtle meaning of the words gets either heavier or lighter as you go along. They will use their three panels to accompany each level of meaning with a drawing to show the difference between levels.

Let’s look at an example. Start with an easy word to demonstrate with your students. Try the word cold.

Have students write the word cold in the first panel of their word scale. Then look for other words that mean (or have to do with) cold but are either more or less intense. For this first example, try exploring the idea of ‘super cold.’ Look for words that feel even colder than cold.

Let students find as many words as they want, and then have a discussion to group them in the next two boxes, organizing each level of intensity as:

        • cold
        • words that mean/feel even colder
        • words that mean/feel the coldest 

Students can use their own background knowledge, a dictionary, a thesaurus, or try searching for synonyms online. Even simple, familiar words like cold can yield some surprising results that may require further examination!

Students may not always agree with each other or with you about where specific words belong on the scale. That’s ok! The discussion will provide excellent metacognitive work to help them understand that words often convey subtle shades of meaning.

Many words can go either way (i.e. more or less intense in meaning). To show an example of this idea, try another word scale with cold, only this time put cold in the final panel and explore the idea of being less cold.

Even with a simple word like cold, it is easy to come up with interesting new words such as frigid, gelid, and tepid! And because the words are organized based on their relative meanings to one another, students now understand more of the nuances among these words. 

Three new vocabulary words may have come out of this activity, and students are much more likely to remember these words than if they had studied them on a vocabulary list!

To deepen their engagement with new vocabulary, have students pick their favorite new synonym and write 3-5 sentences (or even a short story) using the new word. For the student who isn't ready for that amount of writing, engage in partnership writing, taking turns writing sentences.

Encourage your learners to have fun with this activity. Feel free to vary the number of panels or put the original word in the middle panel and explore in both directions.

~ Tracy

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