Vocab activities for your classroom
Beware the Obscure Adjective, Gelid in its Untouched Tomb
In this Wordshop article, Susan Ebbers provides teachers with some creative suggestions for showing students how to make the most of adjectives, "those fabulous descriptors that comprise about one-fourth of the words in the language."
English is a large language, overflowing with adjectives. Students are expected to use words with precision and to pay attention to nuance when they write. The widely adopted Common Core State Standards for English/Language Arts include this learning goal in each grade level, 6-12. Below is an excerpt from the Writing Standards for Grade 6:
W.6.3 Write narratives…
Use precise words and phrases, relevant descriptive details, and sensory language to convey experiences and events.
The standard does not discriminate by grammatical category, but this Wordshop is primarily concerned with helping writers make the most of adjectives — those fabulous descriptors that comprise about one-fourth of the words in the language.
The word is fairly archaic, but it still pops up occasionally in narrative and informational context. Nothing rhymes with it, but poets seem to like it:
- "The brightness of the gelid moon" (Boethius / Preston, 1695)
- "While sea-born gales their gelid wings expand" (Goldsmith, 1764)
- "Like a mighty snow or gelide haile" (Homer / Chapman, 1611).
By now, you have probably decided that gelid denotes "cold," but only Chapman's Homer made this obvious. So, if something is gelid, it is cold. But how cold?
It's a promising day when a student asks this type of question! How cold? How hungry? How scared?
This type of thinking allows a writer to use gradable adjectives with more precision and to optimize the benefits of a thesaurus. On the other hand, students often sabotage their writing by randomly selecting any assumed synonym from a thesaurus. The word they select may not convey what they want, or it may serve the wrong grammatical function. Consider the Visual Thesaurus word map for cold, shown here. Only a handful of descriptors express the intensity of gelid: glacial, arctic, frigid, frozen, icy.
Developing writers must learn to actively question the potential word choice. Teachers can model this type of careful consideration by thinking aloud, pondering the word and the intended audience:
1) Ponder the word: The writer must consider whether the word or phrase communicates the intended message and tone. Question the denotations and possible connotations of the word, the usage, and the grammatical category. To support students in this kind of thinking, teachers might model the following tips, using Visual Thesaurus:
- Grammatical tip! Narrow the results by selecting the desired grammatical category — noun, verb, adjective, or adverb — in the sidebar to the right of the word map. Then, click on a definition, listed under the part of speech, to further narrow the results within that grammatical category.
- Precision tip! Generate the word map with a nuanced adjective. For example, to convey a sense of extreme cold, type icy in the search field, not cold. Or, within a diffuse word map, click on a known adjective that expresses the desired degree of intensity. VT will then generate a new word map, displaying only adjectives with similar nuance.
- Usage tip! Once a word has been chosen, click the gold meaning bubble in the center of the word map to see a simple definition and usage examples. In the pop-up box for gelid, shown here, students can easily see that all these synonyms apply to extreme conditions.
2) Ponder the audience: Students need to ask, "Who is likely to read my piece? Will the reader know this word?" If it is an extremely rare word, it will likely be unfamiliar to most people. Obscurity does not rule out a word, but it is a consideration. How can we find out if a word is rare? Easily enough, with Vocabulary.com.
- Familiarity tip! Type the word into the Vocabulary.com Dictionary. You can find word frequency information in the Word Family section, at the top right of the page. If you scroll over cold, a pop-up bubble indicates that "cold will appear on average once every 35 pages." In striking contrast, gelid will only appear on average once every 46,763 pages! Which type of audience is most likely to know this word?
Encourage peer discussion: Students could "weigh" words with a peer, discussing and debating the message the specific word or phrase is most likely to convey. Teachers could model this type of discussion, perhaps role-playing with a volunteer. Here are some sample discussion prompts for gelid:
- You have invented a fan that will cool a computer, preventing it from overheating. Would you name your company Gelid Solutions? Why or why not?
- Would you use gelid in a warning? (Danger! Gelid conditions tonight!)
- What about the musicality of the word? Do you like how it sounds?
- Does gelid do the trick in the options below? Which is best?
- There was no mercy in the gelid heart of the zombie.
- Nothing lives on the gelid peak of Mount Everest.
- My apartment felt gelid, so I built a roaring fire.
Susan Ebbers is the creator of Vocabulogic, an edublog focusing on word knowledge and linguistic insight. She is a former K-8 teacher and principal, a Cambium Learning curriculum author, a national literacy consultant, and a doctoral candidate. Her research interests pertain to word-learning aptitude, measurement design, and motivation theory. In her spare time she writes poetry, including the Jamie’s Journey series of children’s books. Visit her website or follow her on Facebook.