Vocab activities for your classroom

Seeing Words as Chameleons

Words are like chameleons. Just like a chameleon changes color to adapt to its environment, a word sometimes has to change forms to adapt to its context in a sentence. This might seem like a silly analogy, but if you have ever tried to teach students new words and how to use those words in original sentences, this silly analogy might benefit you (and your students).

Here's the scenario...

You introduce a new word to a student (e.g., accelerate); the student dutifully memorizes that word's definition ("move faster"), but then writes an original sentence such as "The car's sudden accelerate caused a fatal accident."

Then, you try to justify to the student why he or she was marked wrong. When you start to offer explanation ("accelerate is a verb, what you needed to use is the noun form..."), watch the students' eyes glaze over at the mention of parts of speech. The student responds out of frustration, "but I know what it means."

Clearly, this student needs to be taught that words are like chameleons. When you change a word's environment, the word may have to adapt to its new context — by changing its form, in this case by adding the suffix "tion."

Milk the analogy further: demonstrate this in color.

Present students with groups of words written or highlighted in different colors (demonstrated here using the color-coding key of the Visual Thesaurus): nouns in red, verbs in green, adjectives in yellow, like so?
















Then, give students (either individually or in pairs) the following challenge:

Begin with one set of words (either nouns, verbs, or adjectives) and try using those words in original sentences that call for different forms of the words (i.e., parts of speech). Use a different color of marker or highlighter to reflect the words' change in status. For example: if a student starts with a yellow adjective such as happy, hand that student a red noun marker and challenge him to come up with a sentence that calls for the noun form of happy such as "Happiness is a warm blanket." Another example: if a student starts with a green verb such as read, challenge her with a yellow highlighter to come up with a sentence that calls for an adjective form of read such as "Today my reading buddy was Fred."

Once students accept the ever-morphing nature of words and become more familiar with which suffixes are associated with particular parts of speech, they may begin to see the connection between words and their reptilian cousins.

Note: Since asking students to adapt words in multiple contexts can be especially challenging to struggling readers or to the ELL population, allow them to use a dictionary as an aid. In addition, you may want to supply students with a list of suffixes that usually indicate parts of speech (such as this one). And here is a BBC Learning English "quiznet" exercise that gives students practice choosing the correct suffixes for different sentences.

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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:

Thursday March 18th 2010, 4:47 AM
Comment by: ThomasK
Quite an intriguing title, I love that. But I think we also need iguanos, Komoto dragons and other lizard-like creatures.

I mean... I have been teaching Dutch to Europeans for a couple of years now, but the funny thing is that few seem to have that problem or make that kind of mistakes. The colour play* is interesting as an idea though for particular groups of learners.

But it is very interesting and useful, sometimes fascinating, to (help them) explore the 'wealth of words'['woorden-schat' in Dutch] with them as it lights up in those numerous cameleonesque (?) 'derivations' based on one 'word root'. Even native speakers find that fascinating: how 'to live' can be linked with 'life', 'lively', 'alive', 'living', etc. [BTW : do you know sites/ books/ dictonaries based on that principle?] But as I said, I do not consider it a major problem, judging from my experience, but maybe most of my students knew those distinctions well already.

The major problem, however, in my view at least, is very often the subtle difference between near-synonyms, like the choice between 'play' and 'game' above* (I hope I was right as I am Flemish, so a Dutch-speaking Belgian, not a native speaker of English). My point is: words are not that cameleonesque that we can make any of our cameleons fit into a context, we also need iguanos, gekkos, and other lizards-like creatures. I am loking forward to that - but thanks for the cameleon metaphor.
Friday March 19th 2010, 8:58 AM
Comment by: The Hammster
Please (I joke not) correct me if I'm wrong. Aren't they iguanAs and KomoDos? (Yes, I have a dictionary, but it's in the other room and I'm not yet fully awake.) — If you've used the Dutch spelling of those words, then it's I who've learned something and everyone's day starts off nicely! ....
Friday March 19th 2010, 10:04 AM
Comment by: ThomasK
I am sorry, but indeed, I was unable to trace the correct words: iguanas then (ours would be 'leguaan'), and Komodos (Dutch: Komodo-varaan).

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