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Shades of Meaning: Noticing Subtle Differences

When renowned education writers Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey are not presenting at prominent ed conferences across the country, they are putting their innovative ideas to work back in their San Diego high school and college classrooms. In this excerpt from their fantastic book on teaching academic vocabulary across the disciplines, Word Wise and Content Rich, Fisher and Frey encourage teachers to use paint chips to get students to recognize that words — just like similar shades of paint — can be arranged in a continuum. 

The subtle differences between related words can be very confusing for students. While they might have a general sense of the difference between overjoyed and ecstatic, most students would be hard-pressed to define and use these terms in specific ways. In other words, most likely they would see these two words as synonyms and not comprehend the differences authors intend when they use one or the other.

Goodman (2004)* developed the shades-of-meaning strategy as a way to address this need and help students develop their understanding that many words can be organized in gradients of meaning. The strategy encourages students to talk about words and arrange them along a continuum. As an interesting side note, the ability to distinguish subtle meaning is one of the skills assessed on the Scholastic Aptitude Test.

The easiest way to develop students' understanding of the differences between related words is to use paint chips. Most hardware stores will provide you with paint chips for free. Using a paint chip, students identify a continuum of words and then write the words in the colored sections of the paint chip.

The figure to the right contains a sample of a paint chip continuum related to friendship that a group of middle school students created after reading the book Owen and Mzee: The True Story of a Remarkable Friendship (Hatkoff, Hatkoff, and Kahumbu 2006).

As you can imagine, the conversations this group of students had about friendship and the words related to friendship was powerful. During their discussion, students used specialized words to convey their understandings. They also clarified their understanding of the words and provided one another with examples from their own experiences. For instance, Mubarik said, "Ally means friend, right? Someone who can help you, like provide assistance, like a friend."

Tynesia agreed but added, "I see a friend as an ally, but I think that an ally doesn't have the depth of a friendship. Friends are there regardless, in any circumstance. Being friends extends beyond being an ally."

* Goodman, Laurie. 2004. "Shades of Meaning: Relating and Expanding Word Knowledge." In Teaching Vocabulary: 50 Creative Strategies, Grades K-12, ed. G.E. Tompkins and C. Blanchfield, 85-87. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall.

Reproduced with permission from Word Wise and Content Rich, Grades 7-12: Five Essential Steps to Teaching Academic Vocabulary by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey. Copyright © 2008 by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey. Published by Heinemann, Portsmouth, NH. All rights reserved.

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Comments from our users:

Friday March 13th 2009, 11:41 PM
Comment by: Paul F.
Sounds like a wonderful concept, using paint chips. I teach 9th graders, has anyone tried using this method with 9th graders.
Tuesday March 24th 2009, 5:06 PM
Comment by: Elissa S. (New York, NY)
If you're interested in using this instructional strategy with your students, check out this lesson plan that uses the shades of meaning concept to teach subtle differences between words. It's designed to reach students from grade 4-12.
Saturday April 4th 2009, 7:13 PM
Comment by: A. Z.
Sounds cool. I might try it...

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Shades of Meaning
- 1 Comment
A lesson plan to help students distinguish between words with similar definitions but different connotations.
A school reading initiative was a success in Sarasota, Florida, with a little help from Fisher and Frey.
Debbie Shults recommends "Word Wise and Content Rich" as one of several fresh approaches to teaching vocabulary.