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How to Teach Precise Vocabulary

Despite all of our educational focus these days on higher order critical thinking skills, such as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation (Bloom, Costa, Depth of Knowledge, Any New Fads, etc.), the bulk of our teaching and learning at all levels of education remains at the lower levels of factual acquisition, comprehension, and application. Most educators would agree that our students do need this pool of knowledge to be able to accurately and efficiently inform our thinking and decision-making. This pool of knowledge consists of words. Knowing the precise meanings of these words is crucial to developing academic vocabulary to think, read, and write well. Words build upon words. These foundations hold up houses and skyscrapers.

Since independent reading remains the chief vehicle that we use to access words, educators would be wise to focus on this point of access. Learning precise vocabulary is, of course, one of the keys to reading. The point of this article is that it is the precision of vocabulary words are the lower level gatekeepers  that allow readers access to the higher level thinking, reading, and writing skills.

However, some may be thinking… How can we be sure of precision when even the dictionaries disagree? Merriam-Webster defines precision as “the degree of refinement with which an operation is performed or a measurement stated”. Oxford Dictionary defines precision as “The quality, condition, or fact of being exact and accurate“. 

Others may be thinking… Aren’t all words subject to individual interpretation? To some degree, yes. However, words do have a collective consciousness of meaning. They do connect to objective realities. In other words, words are not totally subjective. Words must be denotatively internalized and connotatively applied with a good deal of accuracy and skill to properly access information the way the author intends. Only when the reader understands the meaning of the author’s words can higher order thinking skills be then applied to the text.

Although that author-reader connection is a two-way street, the relationship should be weighted heavily on the side of the author. It is the author’s thoughts that we are trying to interpret, not ours per se. An author chooses words carefully because of their precise meanings and the connotations/feelings that the collective readers commonly will understand.

So, memorizing words with precise denotative and connotative definitions is important. Sloppy use of our language inhibits effective communication and leads to misunderstandings. So, what’s the bottom line here? What’s the application for teacher and learner? It is better to teach and learn fewer words with greater precision, than many words with less precision. Two vocabulary strategies assist in this effort: The Vocabulary Ladder and Semantic Spectrums.

The Vocabulary Ladder

Students draw a graphic representation of a ladder with five rungs. They take notes in between the rungs from each of the guiding prompts (in boldface). Begin with a clear, simple, and concise dictionary definition and work students up the ladder via class and teacher brainstorming and reference to appropriate text.

Example Vocabulary Word: democracy

Full Understanding

-It’s important because… it’s the foundation of our government.

-It’s different than… a republic because… a republic has a Constitution.

-It’s the same as… a republic because… both have citizens who are allowed to vote.

-Specific examples of it would be… direct democracy like a club, representative democracy like our Student Council.

-It’s an example of the following… ways decisions are made in governments and organizations.

-The definition is… rule by the people.

Basic Understanding

Semantic Spectrums

Students draw a number line with one end labeled Extreme and the other end labeled Opposite  Extreme. The object is to list words in their connotative order along the spectrum of meaning. Select two vocabulary words for this activity that students fully understand that are antonyms. For example, hot and cold. Have students brainstorm synonyms to each word at the ends of the spectrum and problem-solve via consensus as to where to list each new word by degree of meaning. Select one or two unknown vocabulary words that will fit along this spectrum and read a clear, simple, and concise dictionary definition of each. Assist the students’ decision-making as to where to place these new words. Have the students write down their definitions below the spectrum.

Example Vocabulary Words: even-tempered and vicious


Extreme kind-hearted/nice/warm/even-tempered/cool/mean/cruel/vicious/hateful Extreme
Here are FREE samples of vocabulary worksheets from this comprehensive program–ready to teach in your class today. Each resource includes directions, four grade-specific vocabulary worksheets, worksheet answers, vocabulary study cards, and a short unit test with answers.

Get the Grade 4 Vocabulary Worksheets FREE Resource:

Get the Grade 5 Vocabulary Worksheets FREE Resource:

Get the Grade 6 Vocabulary Worksheets FREE Resource:

Get the Grade 7 Vocabulary Worksheets FREE Resource:

Get the Grade 8 Vocabulary Worksheets FREE Resource:

The author of this article, Mark Pennington, has written the assessment-based Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) Grades 4-8 programs to teach the Common Core Language Standards. Each full-year program provides 56 interactive grammar, usage, and mechanics and include sentence diagrams, error analysis, mentor texts, writing applications, and sentence dictation formative assessments with accompanying worksheets (L.1, 2). Plus, each grade-level program has weekly spelling pattern tests and accompanying spelling sort worksheets (L.2), 56 language application opener worksheets (L.3), and 56 vocabulary worksheets with multiple-meaning words, Greek and Latin word parts, figures of speech, word relationships with context clue practice, connotations, and four square academic language practice (L.4, 5, and 6). Comprehensive biweekly unit tests measure recognition, understanding, and application of all language components.

Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) also has the resources to meet the needs of diverse learners. Diagnostic grammar, usage, mechanics, and spelling assessments provide the data to enable teachers to individualize instruction with targeted worksheets. Each remedial worksheet (over 200 per program) includes independent practice and a brief formative assessment. Students CATCH Up on previous unmastered Standards while they KEEP UP with current grade-level Standards. Check out the YouTube introductory video of the Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) program.

Pennington Publishing's Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand)

Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand)
Grades 4-8 Programs

The author also provides these curricular “slices” of the Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) “pie”: the five Common Core Vocabulary Toolkits Grades 4−8; the five Differentiated Spelling Instruction Grades 4−8 programs (digital formats only); and the non-grade-leveled Teaching Grammar and Mechanics with engaging grammar cartoons (available in print and digital formats).

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