Vocab activities for your classroom

Going on a Word Safari

I recently watched John Pollack's YouTube video of his "pun safari" where he combed the streets of New York City trying to spot images of puns (such as the restaurant sign "Ciao for Now" and the waitress's "Bored of Education" T-shirt). Even though I find this kind of humor a bit painful, the video did support Pollack's call for awareness that "puns are everywhere." The video also made me think about how useful it could be to challenge students to take their own "word safaris" to document the prevalence of the words they are learning.

We all know the sensation of what it's like to learn a new word, and suddenly that word seems to pop up everywhere. Of course, you have been exposed to that word repeatedly, but only when you commit it to memory do you become aware of how common it is. That's what sending your students on a word safari can do for them; it can contribute to a sense of word consciousness, and they will begin to see the words they are learning all around them.

A word safari doesn't need to take to the streets like Pollack's pun quest did (although it could). You could send your students on a word safari via the Internet. In a recent vocabulary class I was teaching, students were stuck on the word lithe. They just couldn't remember its meaning as "moving and bending with ease." I displayed lithe's Visual Thesaurus word map on the SMART Board and by right-clicking on the word and performing an image search, my students were struck by the various images of women bending with ease in exercise routines. We even discovered a web site for "The Lithe Method" — an exercise studio that promises to deliver lithe bodies.

The discovery of The Lithe Method led to a discussion about how companies choose brand names. Students were surprised to learn that branding experts often use a thesaurus to help them come up with apt and appealing words for their products. With this idea in mind, choosing a word map chock full of "attractive adjectives" could be a starting point for a fun word safari for words used in brand names. Using the words in a particular word map, challenge students to find products that take advantage of those words' positive connotations to lure consumers. Here is a word map for svelte that is annotated with the brand names I found during my ten-minute word safari:

In my ten minute Google search, I discovered products using seven out of the ten words in this svelte word map.  A discussion prompt like "Why didn't I find products with slight in their brand names?" could generate an interesting discussion about shades of meaning, connotation, and sound. Would you rather be called slender or slight? Even though these words may share similar definitions, slight has a neutral or negative connotation while slender packs a positive connotation. Would someone really want to brand a body wrap as "suddenly slight"?

Of course, a word safari doesn't have to be virtual. Sending students to literature anthologies, to song lyrics, to the mall, or even to the grocery store with the mission to find a set of particular words will accomplish the same goal — to help students understand the words' nuances and to help them realize that they may have been overlooking those word all along.

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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:

Tuesday November 1st 2011, 1:58 AM
Comment by: Merkatron (London United Kingdom)
Great idea! I really like the way you set this lesson up and how it combines creativity and analysis.

I'm a fan of awkward puns (unlike your good self) and really enjoy some of the shop names in London. There's a hairdressers in Hackney called It Will Grow Back, another called Roots Man and a fish'n'chip shop in Cable Street called The Codfather.
Tuesday November 1st 2011, 6:50 AM
Comment by: Len P. (Barcelona Spain)
More hairdressers:
The Best Little Hairhouse in Town
Ali Barber
Head Masters
Hairway to Heaven
Thursday November 3rd 2011, 12:03 AM
Comment by: Thomas N. (College Station, TX)
link to the pun video does not work

[Fixed! —Ed.]
Friday November 18th 2011, 2:11 PM
Comment by: Hawaii Mermaid (HI)
I just joined Visual Thesaurus and saw your article on "Word Safari" it inspired me to write this poem. Thank you for the hints on finding the images by clicking on the word. That is fantastic!

I'm Going On A "Word Safari"

I'm going on a "Word Safari"
To improve the poetic words I use
Sometime they are much to simple
Where's the inspiration of my muse

How to find the right words
That paints a picture in the mind
Sometimes it is really hard
That special word I need to find

So bare with me a while
This search might be long
Even all the time I spend
It still sounds so wrong

It's a jungle out there
Can't forget my knife
A machete cuts through the search
This could just take all my life

Understanding the words
With the nuances that they hold
Helps me to realize not to overlook
On this "Word Safari" I must be bold

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