Shades of Meaning

Teaching synonyms is a never ending process. Often, around Halloween, I will introduce my word cemetery bulletin board (now also a digital activity), and students will complete synonym graphic organizers, decorate tombstones, and look up synonyms for words we’ve declared dead. This board quickly grows stale though, and I need other synonym activities to keep students learning new words.

A second classroom decoration producing activity we do is shades of meaning. This activity is simple and virtually preparation free. The only thing I have to prep ahead of time is obtaining the paint chip cards. I do this by asking stores that sell paint if they have any of the paint chips with four or five different shades of a color all on the same card that I could have. Stores are always happy to help and I’ve never had a lack of supply. Besides the paint shade cards, all that is required are some markers, letters for the display title, and some form of thesauri (Word Hippo is a favorite digital version of ours).

To begin the activity we review what synonyms are and how to use a thesaurus. I take things a step further though and we talk about degrees of meaning. I want students to realize that synonyms aren’t all equal, and some words have stronger meanings (or at least connotations) than others. The baby was crying, but was it whimpering, sobbing, wailing…?

After our review and discussion, each student is given a set of overused words (anywhere from 1-4, depending on the number of students and how much time we have), a piece of paper, and access to a thesaurus. They then look up the overused words, consider the synonyms, and choose three or four of them to work with. The challenge of the task comes in that they can’t just simply write the synonyms in any order they choose. They need to put the words in order from strongest to weakest. In order to be issued a paint card and marker, students must show me their list of words and explain why they ordered them in the way they did. Once they have successfully ordered their words, and explained their reasoning, students then write the words (one per shade) on the paint chips, placing the weakest word in the lightest shade. 

I like this project because it helps students understand that language can be very precise, as well as descriptive. The requirement to explain their reasoning behind the ordering of the words always leads to some interesting discussions, and more than once a student has put words into an order I initially disagreed with, but they made a convincing argument that won me over. I also like how they have to really dig into the synonyms, not just copy them from the thesaurus. You can’t successfully rank words by strength, and defend your choices, without knowing what each individual word means, and how it differs in meaning from the other synonyms. Ultimately students end up considering the synonyms’ definitions and example sentences, as well as other factors when making their choices. Ultimately this quick (the entire process takes one class period or less) activity produces a lot of learning!