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Vocab activities for your classroom

Dissecting a Simile with VocabGrabber

In Bob Greenman's "Teachers at Work" column about the value of having students appreciate and create similes, he astutely points out that while writers should avoid using a simile that is a cliche ("smart as a whip," etc.), they should also establish "a comparison  with something almost any reader can picture or identify with."

Unfortunately, as teachers, we cannot always assume that our students can picture or identify with the same things as we can. Take, for example, the following New York Times simile that was written to describe a pivotal moment in a boxing match:

Last October, fighting at 5 feet 11 inches and 200 pounds, Shawn won the United States Boxing Organization cruiserweight title with a second-round knockout. He hit his opponent, Josh Green, with a right-handed punch of such accuracy and power that Green's neck wobbled and he seemed to grow invertebrate for a moment, sagging down the ropes like a Dali clock. (Jeré Longman, 2/9/09)

Students may very well be able to identify the simile here — "sagging down the ropes like a Dali clock" — but if they have never seen Salvidor Dali's painting "The Persistence of Memory," the simile may be lost on them.

One solution to help students make sense of this simile is to copy and paste it into VocabGrabber for a quick analysis. Upon clicking "Grab Vocabulary" and viewing the "List View" of the top five words in the paragraph, we gain an interactive list of vocabulary words that range from boxing jargon to science and art trivia.

But once students click on "invertebrate" in the list and learn that it refers to an "animal lacking a backbone" and on Dali to learn that he was a surrealist painter, they begin to gain the clues they need to put this simile puzzle together. Finally, if students right-click (control-click on a Mac) on Dali's name in the VT word map and choose "Search Images" in the drop-down menu, they will instantly experience that "aha" moment and get this writer's message when they spot the "sagging" clocks that are draped over various objects, just like the boxer Josh Green's body was sagging down the ropes.


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Georgia Scurletis is Director of Curriculum for the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. Before coming to Thinkmap, she spent 18 years as a curriculum writer and classroom teacher. Georgia has written curriculum materials for a variety of Web sites (WGBH, The New York Times Learning Network, Edsitement) and various school districts. While teaching high school English in Brooklyn, she was a recipient of the New York State English Council's Educators of Excellence Award, the Brooklyn High Schools' Recognition Award, and The New York Times' Teachers Who Make a Difference Award. Click here to read more articles by Georgia Scurletis.

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Comments from our users:

Monday August 31st 2009, 9:35 AM
Comment by: Kenneth K.
This article and teaching idea is a knock-out. Thanks for the tip.
Monday August 31st 2009, 10:53 AM
Comment by: Mark G. (Spokane, WA)
should the written tense be "...Dali to learn that he IS a surrealist painter" or since he is dead, WAS a surrealist painter?

Just wonderin'....
Monday August 31st 2009, 11:08 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Mark G.: A case could made that "...is..." works in the historical present tense, but "...was..." sounds better here. We've made the change! Thanks.
Tuesday September 1st 2009, 5:09 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Interesting, Ben, but I got caught up by the change made until I read the comments.

When I got to the words, "Dali is a surrealist...", I stopped. And he's now a ?, I thought.

So I explored the historical present a but on the web, trying to fit it to a person in this context.

Nothing quite twigged, but somehow I can't see him being pushed from that school just because he's dead (or because he died).

It is confusing. I've found a few good sources, but nothing that quite relates to people as this sentence does.

I would say that Eisenhower remains one of the greatest generals in living memory. JFK as a president remains a bit of a mystery as his time in office was shortened so drastically.

Just trying to think of examples... and not succeeding well.

Strange how a little change got me off the topic of an excellent article!

Thank you for the article!

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