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Shaespeare Vocabulary Assignment

Creating the Vocabulary Card

I knew that by closely looking at a single word, students would be able to learn, in addition to the definition of that word, much about the way language works. To advance this understanding, I created what I call the vocabulary card. I called on ideas I'd picked up from Drawing Your Own Conclusions: Graphic Strategies for Reading, Writing and Thinking, by Fran Claggett, that had helped my students go beyond illustrating text to visualize concepts and think metaphorically. I also drew on a vocabulary idea I borrowed and adapted from a writing project colleague who helped her English language learners expand their English by having them write a word on a three-by-five-inch card and then brainstorming and writing related words on the same card. For instance, for baseball, students might write "bat," "ball," "cap," "diamond," and other baseball-related words.
As you will see, the vocabulary card works best with "big" words, such as those found in works with a heavily Latinate vocabulary. Frankenstein, Martin Luther King's Letter from Birmingham Jailand the Declaration of Independence all qualify. Sometimes, I ask students to pick a word from their reading to work with. Other times, I select words, make a word list, cut the list into strips, and have the students draw their word from my Edgar Allan Poe coffee cup.
Now students are ready to go to work. The first step is to divide the word into prefix, root, and suffix—not syllables. I explain that not all words have prefixes and suffixes, but that some will have more than one prefix or suffix. This distinction is not an easy concept for students to grasp.Antirevolutionary, for instance, has seven syllables but only one prefix, two suffixes, and one root word. I model this for the students on the overhead projector, but the lesson seldom takes at this distance, at least not the first time. I need to get closer, to walk around the classroom and explain the difference between syllables and word parts to small groups of students.
Now they are not memorizing; they are digging, performing a kind of literacy detective work.
The next step is to find the meaning of each part of the word. This puts students into territory where they have been before—usually not very successfully. They have memorized lists of prefixes and suffixes and their meanings, but, for the most part, this exercise hasn't much advanced their knowledge. But now they are not memorizing; they are digging, performing a kind of literacy detective work. They discover how to identify the prefix in the dictionary: the in with the hyphen after it; the suffix tion with the hyphen before it. Then I turn the students loose on the fun part. "Find the etymology," I announce.
"The what?" they ask.
I explain that they're looking for the history of the word. "What language was this word before it became English?" This research can be challenging. When they look for the root word forinconceivable, for instance, they'll discover that while the root word is conceive, the root ofconceive is ceive. I need to be prepared to help.
Next, students do a quickdraw of the concept of the word, not the definition. A picture of the definition of pedestrian is a person walking. A picture of the concept could be a foot. Their drawings are wonderful, creative, and occasionally breathtaking. One young man was puzzled about how to draw desolation. We talked for a minute or two about the intensity of the word's meaning. A few minutes later, he said, "I think I've got it, Mrs. Simmons," and handed me the card. On it was an exquisite drawing of an airplane flying into the second World Trade Center tower while the first one lay in ruins. I was stunned for a moment and told him, "You certainly do!" (The World Trade Center became the concept drawing for several words. See figure 1 for inconceivable.)
Figure 1 
To help students establish connections among words, I ask them to find three words with the same root. They can usually do this by looking on the same dictionary page as their word, although I frequently direct them to other parts of the dictionary because I want them to understand the power of prefixes and suffixes. So a student investigating inconceivable is led to the related words receiveconceive and conceivability.
Finally, I direct students to the text they're reading to discover how the author used the word. I ask them to identify the part of speech (frequently a function of the suffix) and to write the definition as the author intended it. Armed with an understanding of the history, concept, and context, students begin to understand the power and nuances of English.
After they have completed this, I give them a five-by-eight-inch card and these instructions:
  • Write the root of the word in capital letters in red in the middle of the card. Draw an arrow and write the meaning of the root and the language of its origin.
  • Write the prefix in black to the left of the root. Draw an arrow and write the meaning of the prefix.
  • Write the suffix in blue to the right of the root. Draw an arrow and write the meaning of the suffix.
  • In the lower left corner, write three words with the same root.
  • Put your quickdraw in the lower right of the card.
  • Write the author's definition and part of speech at the top of the card.
When the students finish their cards, I put them up on the bulletin board.
As students examine the cards their classmates have produced, they are not so much collecting new words as they are developing an understanding of how the English language works