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Add Rigor: Upping a Lesson's Vocabulary Complexity

Thanks to its partnership with publisher Eye on Education, EducationWorld is pleased to present this classroom tip from Rigor is NOT a Four-Letter Word, 2nd Edition, by Barbara Blackburn. In this article, she explains how to enhance rigor by increasing the complexity of a vocabulary assignment.

How many of your students struggle with understanding new vocabulary terms? My students did, particularly in social studies. It’s difficult to understand the specialized vocabulary found in some content-area courses. Words that may seem familiar have a different meaning in the new context.

For example, I was in a ninth grade physical science classroom, and Tyler was sure he knew the definition of the term "grounded." As he explained that he was grounded for two weeks because of a low grade on a test, the other students laughed. The teacher was looking for an answer about the grounding of electricity, which is quite different. However, it provided an important lesson for the students and for us, reminding us of the ease with which words can be confusing.

When I was a student, the model for teaching vocabulary was simple. The teacher gave the class a list of words. We copied the words and definitions, then wrote a sentence using each term. Finally, we took a test. This model provides routine for students, but it rarely leads to a deep comprehension of the meanings of concepts. Students tend to memorize what they wrote and simply restate it on the test. One of my students just rearranged the words from a textbook definition and said it was her own.

In a rigorous classroom, you are looking for your students to demonstrate they understand what a vocabulary word means, usually through an explanation with details, examples and elaboration. My initial method for pushing students past memorization was requiring them to write an extended response of at least a paragraph explaining the word or concept. However, that backfired on me. My students wrote everything they knew about the topic, hoping I would find the correct portion of the answer and accept it. They equated length with quality, while I was looking for depth of understanding.

I learned to create opportunities for students to demonstrate their understanding in ways that required them to synthesize information about a term or concept, and refine it down to the key points. Using a graphic organizer, students discuss different elements of a particular vocabulary term.

You can customize the headings on the organizer to match your specific subject area. The key to this process is that as students explore multiple definitions, examples and nonexamples, and characteristics or functions, they develop a fuller grasp of the concept. (Click here for an example.)

As the culminating activity, rather than writing a definition in their own words, ask students to write a “What Am I?” riddle or create “Who Am I?” and “What Am I?” raps.

Sample "What Am I?" Riddles

Prices go up.

Your wallet is thinner.

You pay twice as much to provide family dinner.

What am I?


My end is not like my beginning.

I get bound up for change.

I start low and end up high.

What am I?

A butterfly

Question, question, oh what is it?

Oh, my mind wants to know.

Self-process and problem-solving are a hit.

I'll have to search and find the answer quick.

What am I?


I am drawn to scale.

To certain people I am a map.

I am covered with symbols.

Without me, there can be no construction.

What am I?

A blueprint

Elementary students also love the riddles. I was recently in a kindergarten classroom. Students created two-line riddles:

I’m the color of my shirt.
What am I?

I‘m what you use when your pencil won’t write.
What am I? (pencil sharpener)

The students were excited and worked to make the riddles more complex to “stump” their classmates.


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