Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

New Year, Nuance: Synonyms in Teaching Vocab

A cold and brisk hello from snowy New York City! Winter is a great time to, as a friend of mine said, "Cozy down," at home and in the classroom. To that end, I've been knitting, reading and cooking a lot at home, and digging in with my kids to improve our practices at school.

I've already devoted considerable column time here to discussions of teaching vocabulary in my high school English classroom, but it seems that there is always more to consider, at least for us word lovers. Lately, I've been trying to listen more closely to what my students say — a novel concept! — when we're working on new vocabulary words. I doubt my insights are original, but they're worth considering.

Watching my kids acquire new words intrigues me, especially when I find it not all that terribly different from, say, new shoe acquisition. When I buy new shoes, I'd like them to fit well, look cool, and be worth the money I'm going to pay. My students want the same in their new vocab words; they'd like the word to fit well (assuage is difficult to find a use for at 16, but fiasco is superbly useful); they'd like the word to look cool (using substantiate is awesome, but using elegiac isn't, and no, I don't know why, as I am no longer 16); and they'd prefer that the word be worth the effort they're putting in (onomatopoeia is ridiculous but apparently the fun of knowing how to pronounce it is worthwhile, while I simply could not sell them on inimitable, which I find just as fun to say and more practical — 75% of the class flatly refused to say it!).

Here's another way words are like shoes, at least the shoes in my closet. We tend to have a lot more of them than we technically need. Unless we are movie stars who live in an ice house, play golf on a daily basis, and get to the course by traversing rocky waters, we most likely really only need 3 to 5 pairs of shoes. Nonetheless, I have something like 40 pairs. It'd be very tricky to estimate how many words we actually "need," although I have no doubt some of our clever VT commentators will know or have a good guess, but I think it's fair to say we could gain food, water, shelter and, um, love, with far fewer words than we actually use. 

Far be it from me to advocate for fewer words. Never. Like Ammon Shea, the author of Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages, I'd prefer to bring back words, not eliminate them. For my students, though, the vastness of the English language poses a problem. They would like to master what they're supposed to master in English class, and then get on with the more exciting things of life. And nothing frustrates them more than synonyms.  

Ah, the Joy/Delight/Pleasure of Synonyms!

Journey back with me, to the early fall of 2010. You remember it. There was no snow. Back then, my students were prepping for the SATs, heads buried in their dictionaries, looking up 10 new words. Then, M., the fastest looker-upper in the class, got to variable.

"Hey! Ms. Reed!" She said, "It says here that variable means the same as adaptable."

"Well, they're similar, yes, in one sense of both of them," I said.

M. fixed me with a steely glare, then said, "We've ALREADY LEARNED adaptable!"

Ah, there's the rub. What does a teacher do in that moment? Ideas flashed through my head. I thought about bringing up the notion that the Eskimos have 30 (300?) words for snow, but then I immediately remembered reading somewhere that was untrue. I thought about initiating a discussion on the importance of a broad vocabulary, or dragging in the laptop cart so we could all look at the words on this website. I even considered lecturing on the importance of nuance. Instead, in one of my finest teaching moments, I stalled.

"Well, that's a good point," I said. Then, after a minuscule pause, "Um, anyone have anything helpful to say about synonyms?"

God took pity on me, and D. spoke up. "They're important," he stated.

The class looked at him, intrigued.

He met several pairs of eyes, and shrugged. "I write rhymes for my girlfriend," he said.

The blank looks continued.

"It's good to have more than one way to say 'beautiful,'" he said.

There was wisdom in this, and we all nodded. It was true.

We ended up taking a quick trip to Visual Thesaurus, after all. D. went back to our small computer bank, and called out the synonyms for beautiful as they popped up: bonnie, splendiferous, and beauteous were favorites.

Interested but still skeptical, M. noted, "But you couldn't use bonnie when you mean splendiferous."

"Why not?" Another student asked.

"They don't sound the same," she answered. "I mean, they don't — they mean the same thing, but they don't. Right?"



Turns out, the definition is not enough. I'm not really giving my students more words to use if they exit the classroom thinking that rebellious and malcontent and insubordinate mean precisely the same thing, or are interchangeable. If those three words were people, the first is the only kind that I'd be happy to interact with on a daily basis, while the second might make a good stand-up comedian. As for the last? Well, there was never a movie titled "Insubordinate without a Cause" (although I've just now decided that "Insubordinate without a Clause" might be a good title for my memoir).

In other words (ha), it's important that my students understand the nuance of every word they learn. Knowing its definition is just not enough. Glacial and wintry are very close in meaning, but I don't want one of my kids noting to her college professor that the day is moving at a "wintry pace." I also don't want to doom them to failure, or middling results, on the SAT, LSAT, GRE or any of a number of tests that require some pretty fine dicing on the meaning and usage of words.

So, how do we teach nuance?


I have several thoughts about this, and most of them come back to ideas that are well-known and agreed-upon by teachers. Students learn words better when they read frequently. (Even if they encounter words they don't know, they have a context for figuring them out, as well as what I think of as a sort of pre-screening. I'm convinced that seeing a word used, even once, moves it into a different part of our brain than words we have no experience with.) They're also greatly helped by using the word in sentences and paragraphs, and listening to others do the same, and a little verbal practice is good, too.

For nuance particularly, I think that there's a theatrical concept that helps. That's the concept of subtext, the underlying meaning of text. Of course, this is a literary concept as well, but since I work in a theatre school and have a theatre background, it's the theatre meaning that comes to my mind first. In our acting classes, we talk and work with subtext.

Lest you think, fellow teachers, that I am going to suggest the procurement of a large-ish stage and a megaphone, please know that you can easily introduce this concept in your class as well. A fun exercise is to give students a phrase of extreme simplicity, e.g. "Thanks. I think so, too." We say it a couple of times. Then I distribute to volunteers notecards that give a subtext for the phrase, which they keep secret. Some examples: "You've just been complimented on your new haircut, which you LOVE." "You've just been told by someone you detest that your boy/girlfriend might be cheating on you." "You're an athlete who's taking steroids, but no one knows. Someone tells you that they bet you're going to the Olympics next year, but you know that there's no way you'll pass the drug test."

The students then perform their lines, and we in the audience attempt to figure out what their subtext is (and sometimes their situation as well). Fun stuff, right? There are millions of variations. Sometimes I ask my students to make up their own. This exercise drives home that words, their meaning, and the intention of the speaker all work together to create our understanding of what a word "means." 

The next step is intuitive for the class. We take a group of synonyms and use a similar exercise; recently, I tried this, successfully, with words that mean the same as annoying. First, I suggested a sentence construction to the students: "You are really ________ me." We tried it out with annoying in the blank and various subtexts. Then, after identifying the meaning of each of the synonyms, the kids tried to write subtexts that would justify each word. "You are really galling me," was deemed appropriate when a friend describes going on a date with the guy you like. "You're really teasing me," seemed better for a relatively innocent game of "Where are you taking me for my birthday dinner?" while "You are really vexing me" went best with the subtext of "You're keeping me prisoner."

Doubtless, there are more variations you could use with this exercise. This is just one way I've found to connect the concept of subtext and the concept of synonyms. One aspect of it that is really helpful is that when a student uses a word incorrectly, it's fairly easy to correct them without embarrassment. We can adjust the subtext to match the word, instead of declaring the usage of the word wrong.

So Long, Farewell, Auf... Oh, You Get It.

Ultimately, what's really important is not that my students, or yours, or you, or me, understand the nuanced meaning of every single word — an impossible task, in any case — but rather that we all enjoy the vastness of the English language. We may not have 300 words for snow, but we do have dozens of words for dozens of things. This is a language that gave me over 25 words that are variations on cold. It is a complex and lovely, constantly changing organism, our language. Any time we can celebrate it, we should, and exploring it in my classrooms is one of the most exciting (galvanizing, exhilarating, breathtaking) ways I'm honored to pursue.

See you next month!

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An award-winning playwright and former contributor to the Visual Thesaurus Teachers at Work department, Shannon Reed is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also teaches. Read more about her work at shannonreed.org. Click here to read more articles by Shannon Reed.

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Comments from our users:

Monday January 31st 2011, 12:12 PM
Comment by: James W. (Fountain Hills, AZ)
I believe that if I were in high school today, I would want Shannon Reed for my English teacher. She is obviously creative and enthusiastic. I find, however, one of her claims to be incredible. I am currently enjoying my fortieth year in a classroom, and I have to say that her account of an adolescent male revealing to a group of peers that he thinks synonyms are useful because he writes love poems to his girlfriend, and needs alternatives for the word "beautiful", is, well, just too much to swallow. I think you made that one up, Shannon. If I'm wrong, I apologize, and you should contact the Guinness book of records. They will definitely want to know.
Monday January 31st 2011, 2:53 PM
Comment by: Anonymous
Why do you need all those synonyms?!

I think it's useful to mention to students that although they personally may not use all those words in their speech and/or writing - it is nice to know what others have written and are saying.
Monday January 31st 2011, 4:49 PM
Comment by: Shannon R. (Brooklyn, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Good point, Edward!

And James, I swear the story is true! Keep in mind, my school is very small, and the class I wrote about is my Senior class. I had them last year as well, so we've known each other for about 18 months now. I doubt that he would have said it if he hadn't felt as comfortable. :)
Tuesday February 1st 2011, 2:14 AM
Comment by: James W. (Fountain Hills, AZ)
Okay, Shannon. I'll suspend my disbelief and take your word for it. Your classroom must be a magical place for kids to be that comfortable. If that sounds sarcastic, believe me, it is not. Keep teaching.
Saturday February 5th 2011, 1:56 PM
Comment by: Julie S. (Phoenix, AZ)
I am going to try this with my seventh graders this week - Monday, in fact. We are working with basic LA words like passage, theme, conclude, plot but I want them to really know the word so this should help. I have a highly creative and cerebral group overall so I'll report back.

Thanks Shannon!
Tuesday February 8th 2011, 7:16 AM
Comment by: Robin B. (Woodstock, NY)
Thanks Shannon for your article. Do you think it would work with English Language Learners? I have a small class and we add words daily, but the subtleties of the meanings of words are a challenge for them.

Great idea!

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