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Vocab activities for your classroom

Teaching Verbs and Confronting the Skunk

"Grammar is the skunk at the garden party of the language arts."
—from Grammar Alive! A Guide for Teachers

This quote acknowledges the aversion many language arts teachers have to the teaching of grammar. Somewhere along the way, English teachers abandoned diagramming sentences and began instead to focus their efforts on developing the writing process as a more holistic enterprise.

Regardless of your feelings about this shift, it has had an effect on the teaching of vocabulary. Students (and teachers) are often not familiar with the subtleties of English grammar and instead tend to resort to oversimplified explanations of the roles words play in sentences. When a noun is introduced as a "person, place or thing," students are stumped to categorize more abstract nouns such as confusion or paradox. And when a verb is simplistically described as an "action word," students envision running, jumping and fighting without considering the other more "sedate" verbs such as exist or empathize.

These blurry notions of the parts of speech hinder independent vocabulary learning. When students are handed a list of words to learn on their own, their lack of grammatical knowledge makes understanding how to use these new words difficult. They are able to memorize a dictionary definition but are often unable to interpret how to use the word in the context of a sentence since a part of speech label means little to them. For example, if a student explores the word map for embellish and ignores its role as a verb, he or she might infer from its definitions that it is a word to describe something that is attractive or beautiful. On the other hand, if you explain that to embellish something is taking action to make something more beautiful or attractive, students will have a better clue to understanding its usage.

Verb usage in particular can be tricky, and teachers sometimes need to scaffold the learning process for students instead of expecting students to somehow intuitively infer verb usage with only definitions as their guides. Here are some ideas about how to go about expanding your students' verb vocabularies in thoughtful ways.

Teach transitive vs. intransitive:

Since offering students a simple explanation like "a transitive verb takes a direct object" might not resonate with grammar-averse students, I would instead start by associating IN-transitive verbs with the word IN-dependent, explaining that intransitive verbs can act independently in a sentence. In fact, an entire sentence can consist of only a subject and an intransitive verb: I eat. I drink. I sleep. True, these examples might sound caveman-like in their simplicity, but they are grammatically valid sentences.

On the other hand, present students with a familiar transitive verb, like enjoy, and ask them to use the word in a simple subject-verb sentence formula. Immediately, they will get it. "I enjoy…" begs the question: "Enjoy what?" Students will intuitively understand that the sentence is incomplete. Explain that a direct object is what will complete the thought, e.g. , "I enjoy music."

Wait a minute. It's not so simple:

Once your students have digested the transitive or intransitive lesson, you'll need to clarify that some verbs can be either transitive or intransitive – depending on context. Take a look at these three examples of how the verbs circulate, endure, and retire can play both intransitive and transitive roles in the following sentences.

  1. The rumor about calling a snow day was circulating around school. (intransitive)
    Please circulate these flyers around the school so I can get elected class president. (transitive)
  2. Despite it all, hope always seems to endure. (intransitive)
    I can't possibly endure the sound of his snoring for another night. (transitive)
  3. After forty-two years in the school system, it was time to retire. (intransitive)
    The pitcher retired a string of ten batters in a row. (transitive)

Teach verbs in sentence frames:

And, if you wish to avoid the terms transitive and intransitive altogether, try teaching verbs in sentence frames. A sentence frame can help scaffold the usage piece of the verb-learning process for them. In this Mad Libs-like exercise, instead of expecting students to understand or infer how to use an unfamiliar verb, supply students with a fill-in-the-blank sentence frame that will give them a head start. Students can still look up the verbs to learn their definitions, but the sentence frame will give them additional guidance in using that verb in a way that makes sense.

Here are some tricky verbs, their corresponding definitions, some corresponding model sentence frames, and some example sentences written within those guidelines.

1. peruse: (transitive verb): examine or consider with attention and in detail

sentence frame: _____who?____    perused    ___what?___   

possible student response: The agent perused the real estate contract.


2. stagnate: (intransitive verb): be idle

sentence frame: _____what?____    stagnated    ___why?___   

possible student response: His career stagnated because his company went bankrupt.


3. goad: (transitive verb): give heart or courage to

sentence frame: _____who?____    goaded    ___whom?___    ___to what?___

possible student response: Lucy goaded her friend Lily to run for class president.

Although crafting sentence frames as a way to introduce students to unfamiliar verbs is a bit time-intensive, it pays off. Students will have a construct within which to build meaning without having to learn unfamiliar grammar terms at the same time (a double burden). Hopefully, with enough practice with the frames and with associating certain frames with the terms transitive and intransitive, they will start to make the grammar-usage connections independently. You could even have students find usage examples on Vocabulary.com dictionary pages and model their own sentence frames after the sentences found online. In this way, you can get students to become gradually accustomed to the grammar skunk and maybe even allow him into your classroom.


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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 May 21st 2012, 9:22 AM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
Thank you for the helpful presentation.
The "Vocabulary.com dictionary" is an indeed very useful attachment in this column.
Do you know any source where I can get access to practice with the frames?
I mean is there any free online service?
I wanted to read this article since last week. But every time I logged on to my VT window, I got involved with other issues. This time I completed the reading and felt obligated to assign credit to the author.Thank you again.
Monday May 21st 2012, 7:44 PM
Comment by: Georgia S.Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Unfortunately, Begum, most exercises I find online only present full sentences and ask students to determine whether a verb is transitive or intransitive (not very helpful really).

Why don't you check out this week's worksheet: "Don't be iffy on "-ify" Verbs" (http://www.visualthesaurus.com/cm/worksheets/).

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