Synonym Toast Crunch

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.” –Mark Twain

I believe vocabulary development is one ofthe key elements of middle school language arts. There’s a lot to learn between sixth and ninth grades, but without expanding the words that kids can recognize and use is critical to high school success. Limited vocabulary can be a hurdle, but done effectively, vocabulary can be a bridge from little-kid reading and writing to real sophistication.

I’ve struggled with how to effectively teach vocabulary in my class. We have vocabulary workbooks in my school with 20-word chapters of grade-appropriate vocabulary. Bleh. I dislike teaching vocab out of context, but it’s like doing long runs or pushups– ya just gotta get the work in. Throughout my six years of teaching, I’ve striven to make the chapters both effective and palatable.

Anyway, I’ve found that strict memorization is pretty much useless. Your vocabulary isn’t a stockpile or stamp collection– the words aren’t any use if you can’t recognize and deploy them. So now when I teach vocab, I have the students make flashcards and draw pictures, I give them example sentences and make them write their own, and reward them when they use the words properly in their own writing. So far, it’s working pretty well.

I also require them to give me a synonym and antonym (if applicable) of each word. Here’s where things fall apart. It’s one thing to remember a definition, another to rephrase it, and another to plug the word into a sentence. But to give synonyms requires having a sense of the word that isn’t easily learned in a couple of weeks.

The first hurdle is understanding the part of speech and the ways in which the word can–and cannot– be used. For instance, one of the words in their current chapter is “bungle.” A verb. Yet I’ve had a number of students give me sentences like “He’s such a bungle person!” I explain that it needs to be changed to an adjective, “bungling.” Then they get another verb, “refute,” and try to change it to an adjective: “The scientist’s report was very refuting about the old information.” English is fun!

The second problem is that some definitions just don’t give a sense of the word. This chapter, the hardest word to grapple with is “smug.” The official, book definition is “overly self-satisfied, self-righteous.” I think this is a vague definition (not to mention useless for the 98% of my students who don’t know what “self-righteous” means). I’ve done my best to talk them through it, explaining “smug” as “cocky” or “thinking you’re better than everyone and everything” or “arrogant, in a quiet way.” I give them example sentences (“She was awfully smug for someone repeating 7th grade for the fourth time!”). In the end, though, I’m pretty sure that “smug” will be one word this chapter that will simply elude most of my kids.

Another challenge comes from how we look for synonyms. We recently completed a research project, and I came across one report with a high level of highly misused vocabulary. The sentence that really got me was “Edgar Allan Poe was a vast author for all his stories and poems.” I called the student over and asked her what she meant by it.
“I mean he’s a great author!”
I paused. Something struck me.
“You typed this in Microsoft Word?”
“Did you write ‘great,’ then right-click on it and look for ‘synonyms’?”
“Yeah. You’re always telling us not to use little kid words, so I wanted to replace ‘great’ with a better word.”

I explained that because “great” can be used many ways, and not all the meanings are the same. “Great” and “vast” are synonyms…sometimes. The caveat to my “used big-kid words” is “use words you know how to use.”

This isn’t the fault of technology or MS Word. The same error could have been made with a hard copy thesaurus. I only find thesauruses useful when they remind me of other words I hadn’t thought of. But lunging out at mysterious words can create some wacky results.

(Also fun– use MS Word for “synonym chains,” when you replace one word with a suggested one, then replace that one, over and over until the final word choice is light years away from the original one.)

I don’t see the “great/vast” mixup as an utter failure. A big part of vocabulary development is experimentation. But it’s gotten me thinking about the nature of synonyms. Are there ever any true synonyms? If two words meant exactly the same thing, why have both of them? English is a messy hoarder of a language that eagerly accumulates and reluctantly abandons words. English may not be efficient or tidy, but I think this ambiguity, the shades of meanings, the connotations and implications of words is what makes it so much fun to play with.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Simple, clear, epic.
“It was the paramount epoch, it was the most perilous of occasions.” Bloated and overreaching.
“It was the instigate of clock, it was the under the weather rotation.” MS Word Synonym Chain.

I’m not going to stop teaching vocabulary, though I’m always adapting my methods. Is there one key to developing a vocabulary that is not only large and flexible, but is readily applied? Sure. I encourage my students to do it all the time, in school for academics and at home for fun. It was the way I developed my vocabulary. Read.

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