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Vocab activities for your classroom

Growing Students' Vocabularies, One Tree at a Time

Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth planted an inspirational seed in 5th grade teacher Francesca Leibowitz's mind: "What if our class were to grow a Word Orchard by planting roots and affixes? And what if the fruits of our labor (pun fully intended) were those morphemes' derivatives?"

Like most English teachers, I have always loved words. If I were to make a movie of my childhood, the opening credits would roll out to the sweet rhythm of Boggle dice. There would be a mid-film montage where I'm scouring the dictionary for ammunition.  (In an ongoing effort to confound my mother, I say things like, "I did not eat all the cookies, mom; I stopped after the penultimate Oreo!")  The film's director would have to capture the heady power that comes when a kid adds new linguistic specimens to his or her collection— especially fancy and potentially irksome specimens, like penultimate.

If I were to make a movie of my adult life, words would play no less a role. This time, though, the mid-film montage would show clips of my extolling the wonder of vocabulary study to a class of fifth graders. Shots of my hyper-animated face would be spliced with shots of the kids' faces… blank, numb and thoroughly not buying it.  This seems almost unfathomable, but judging from their stupor, it would appear as though many of my students consider growing one's vocabulary to be akin to growing one's molars: an unremarkable, passive process. What happened in the space between searching for multisyllabic ways to drive my mom nuts and where I am now — a teacher, boring to distraction a group of normally inquisitive, creative kids?  How did I manage to kill the joy and excitement inherent to word study, and what can I do to resurrect it?

Last year, I taught Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth for the first time.  Juster delights in language's idiosyncrasies, and his words are strung together with fanciful magic. It is a good thing, too, because fanciful magic is precisely what it would take for me to figure out how to teach vocabulary well.  At the book's opening, the protagonist reaches Dictionopolis and learns that all words are grown on trees within the city's orchards. In reading this, it was as though Juster's hand reached across fifty years to pull the light-cord languishing above my extinguished teacher brain… What if our class were to grow a Word Orchard by planting roots and affixes?  And what if the fruits of our labor (pun fully intended) were those morphemes' derivatives?

The next Monday, I armed students with a handful of word parts and a chart to record derivatives and their definitions.   I instructed the kids to spend the week prowling the internet, dictionaries, and everyday conversations to find words containing our morphemes.  I also mentioned that rare strains of words (the lexical "broccoflower," if you will) would earn extra honors. A week later, our class was overrun with giant paper tree trunks, glue sticks and hundreds of paper cutouts of apples, leaves, bananas and peaches. Each homeroom compiled a list of words found by their section, and then they compared their lists to those of the other homerooms.  In the hallway, we set the confines of our orchard under a banner which read, "Merri(am Webster), Merri(am Webster), How Does Your Garden Grow?  With…  Root Words!!!"  A paper tree was tacked up with a root or affix at its base, and the derivatives the kids found were pinned to the top.  If only one section found a particular derivative, then that class's symbol (apple, leaf or banana) was used to record the derivative and definition. If multiple sections found a derivative, then it was written on the peach. These particular trees had a three week life-cycle, and kids could continue to add more derivatives during that time, even though they were given new roots and affixes each Monday. After three weeks, older trees were felled to make room for new saplings with their roots and affixes.

While some aspects of the project were unwieldy (lots of lists and cross-referencing to manage), the results were truly astounding. Students hoped to provide their homerooms with unique words, and so they were on constant high-alert when watching TV, sitting around the dinner table, reading their science textbooks, and listening to song lyrics. Words stopped being desiccated relics and suddenly came alive. What's more, they were ubiquitous, and students were awakened to their presence with new consciousness—within the classroom and without. From a practical perspective, I will concede it is unlikely that graphospasm (best derivative EVER — a hand-cramp from writing too much!) will show up on the verbal section of the SAT.  But, also from a practical perspective, I know that the meaning of graph will always be at my students' disposal. Along with the other morphemes we study, graph will hang there like a shiny golden key, helping to unlock all the mysterious words that await.


Francesca Leibowitz teaches fifth grade English at Poly Prep Country Day School in Brooklyn, New York. She began her career as a New York City Teaching Fellow, where she taught high school English in Brooklyn and Manhattan public schools for several years. Interested in various phases of literacy development, Francesca has been teaching middle school English for the past four years, and she loves the excitement and challenge of learning to work effectively with younger students.


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Thursday November 8th 2012, 4:44 PM
Comment by: theodore R. (Santa Monica, CA)
This is great: My son's favorite book is "Phantom" (he recently acquired as well the annotated version of the book) and I will send this to his teachers. Thanks!
Thursday November 8th 2012, 4:47 PM
Comment by: Lesley G. (Lowestoft United Kingdom)
Fascinating - starting one with my students tomorrow - all with learning difficulties I know they will love this activity.
Sunday November 11th 2012, 10:33 AM
Comment by: Elsa G. (Brooklyn, NY)
My daughter has trouble with vocabulary building and comprehension. This activity seems alot of fun to me. I am going to do this activity and see how it works out. I hope to be able to follow up back on this topic to give the results.
Sunday November 11th 2012, 1:09 PM
Comment by: keith M. (Kula, HI)
Thank you so much, Justine, for your honesty as you commented on the lackluster responses of your students when you presented the marvels of word derivations. I was not only delighted by the shift in interest when you planted your metaphorical orchard, I was blown away (again) by the synchronicity of ideas.

For many years I have introduced fifth and sixth grade children to Ancient Greek and Classical Latin with varying degrees of success. I made a few efforts similar to yours with branches and leaves, e.g., drawing a "bene-branch" with sprouting leaves: "benefit," "benediction,"
"beneficiary," etc. For some students there was a "growth spurt" of interest. Last year I drew a tree with five roots, each with a letter on it, spelling out "Latin." In the ground underneath I wrote "Indo-European," the source of many languages, including Greek and Latin. On the trunk I wrote ROMANce Languages, that then "branched" out into Italian, French, Spanish, etc., and wrote "English" in the leafing foliage. This year I varied that image by writing two Latin source words ascending vertically on the trunk and then sprouting out into eight branches. For example, I did a "family tree" with "pater" and "mater" growing up the trunk and branching out into "paternal," "patriarch," etc., and "mater" expanding into "maternity," "matrix," etc. I provided the students xeroxed pages with four blank trees. I did put "Latin" on the roots, and noted its "grounded" source. They copied what I wrote and drew on the chalkboard. This was met with a degree of interest, but nothing like what you describe in your well written article.

I do think your involving the children in the "husbandry," i.e.,the researdh was a stroke of genius.

Also I am convinced that imaginative use of the metaphor was vital. Metaphors expand consciousness, as Owen Barfield made clear in his book "Poetic Diction" (which he dedicated to his best friend, C. S. Lewis). The mental pictures generated by figurative language have power! The most powerful nation in the world is the imagi-nation. It can change the past, the present, and the future.

My antepenultimate word is to share yet another idea. One of my three muses got my attention recently and inspired me to write a play to be used in class as a Readers' Theater piece for my Latin class. The working title is "Time-Travelers in the Land of Latin." In it I have fraternal twins, Maxie and Minnie, depart via a space/time machine from the year 2112 bound for the Forum in the year 20 B.C.E. In play and its appendix I introduce over four hundred Latin words that have English derivatives. It is currently at the publishing wing of the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America and could be in print by the end of the year. I did a trial run recently with a sixth grade class, and they did get into it. Of course, the jury is still out regarding its lasting effect. Might the play interest you?
I don't know what Visual Thesaurus' policy is re/the exchange or publication of email addresses is, but I am open to further communication. (That was my penultimate comment.)

Ultimately, I want to commend you highly for your perseverance and enthusiasm for "cultivating" what could be more than an orchard. Comparable to Johnny Appleseed you may have begun a veritable forest of philology!

Keith Mac, Kula, Maui
Sunday November 18th 2012, 7:52 PM
Comment by: Ken K. (Edmond, OK)
The Phantom Tollbooth was a favorite of mine 45+ years ago... thrilled to see that it is still inspiring students and teachers alike.

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