Since building student vocabulary skills is one of the big development areas for our company, I’m thinking a lot about how to build elementary vocabulary skills in a more rigorous and nuanced fashion.

Today, I’m writing about nuances of meaning but more generally, I’m studying the needs and standards and trying to identify ways that we can help schools practice and build vocabulary skills. Starting point: Do you have unmet needs in your schools for a supplementary, technology-based language arts program to help build vocabulary skills? If you would like to help us figure out how to help you, I’d like to hear from you. Email me at

SMG-LaughterI love that the modern language arts standards emphasize shades of meaning and de-emphasize synonyms.  I always thought in school (and since) that it’s naive to teach that snicker, guffaw, and cackle are synonyms. Yes, they all describe laughter, but they do NOT mean the same thing. We all know that they mean slightly different things, so I’m pleased that instead of identifying them as synonyms, we now focus on the differences and really, what these words mean.

Core standards say that in kindergarten, students should get to act out the shades of meaning between different verbsWe will soon be providing an array of verbs that kindergarten teachers can give to students to act out. I only wish I had more time to spend in the classroom watching how much fun this is going to be, and how it will help give students a solid foundation in language concepts.

In second grade, the core standards add in adjectivesDistinguish shades of meaning among closely related verbs (e.g., toss, throw, hurl) and closely related adjectives (e.g., thin, slender, skinny, scrawny).

By third grade, they make it more conceptual to address states of mind.  But they also introduce “degrees of certainty”Distinguish shades of meaning among related words that describe states of mind or degrees of certainty (e.g., knew, believed, suspected, heard, wondered).

Notice that they do not call out or emphasize the relative distinctions such as: fast, faster, fastest. I believe it’s because while this has been a standard lesson in many classrooms and textbooks, it is an example of a dumbed-down lesson which the standards feel are inadequate in building critical thinking and linguistic skills. However, when I look at many of the vocabulary materials available, I see an inordinate focus on comparing the shades of meaning along a specific criterion.

Notice also that the example called out by the standards in third grade – the states of mind – gets students to reflect on their own states of mind. Rather than the old simplistic distinction between fact and opinion (and fiction), the standards emphasize the complexity and subtlety of all the shades of knowing or thinking.

By fifth grade, the nuances of meaning are no longer being called out, and the standards talk generally about word relationshipsUse the relationship between particular words (e.g., synonyms, antonyms, homographs) to better understand each of the words.

So that’s a quick walk-through of the standards related to shades of meaning. Any thoughts on a best practice for a supplementary language arts program to help practice and build vocabulary skills in this or other areas? If so, reach out to me.  Twitter works too: @VSpellCityMayor



Vocabulary: Shades of Meaning

4 thoughts on “Vocabulary: Shades of Meaning

  • March 30, 2016 at 4:00 pm

    Our teachers and school are somewhat confused about how to teach vocabulary. We use to have defined lists that the students had to master in each grade (Broward) but that we swept away in the last five years. Now, we have Journeys as a basal but each unit has so many word lists that we aren’t sure what to do with them. Also, some words are confusing. Some people use high frequency words (ie Beck) as a guide to what vocabulary students should learn. But this term is also used for sight words that are a key to fluency but not really to vocabulary. Similarly, the concept of academic vocabulary keeps coming up as key but having a different meaning each time. Mayor, can you help?

    • April 20, 2016 at 12:35 pm

      Thanks for the question. Rather than just answer off the cuff, let me ask you to stay tuned. We’ll be rolling out a series of articles laying out a strategy based on recognizing the importance of a well organized and integrated vocabulary-building word study program. John the “Mayor”

  • July 17, 2016 at 10:05 pm

    I can’t seem to stop thinking about shades of meaning. Like I said above, I love thinking about the nuances between words and how to help students build understanding and appreciation of it. The CCSS standards say:

    Kindergarten: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.K.5.D
    Distinguish shades of meaning among verbs describing the same general action (e.g., walk, march, strut, prance) by acting out the meanings.
    We’ll soon be providing on VocabularySpellingCity some lesson plans for doing this and maybe even some videos to inspire you and your students of students going across the room by strutting, strolling, skipping, marching, prancing, and dancing. We’ll help unpack this a little by providing lists of verbs that students can easily act out such as:
    – ways of talking
    – ways of sleeping
    – ways of laughing
    – ways of crying

    1st grade: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.1.5.D
    Distinguish shades of meaning among verbs differing in manner (e.g., look, peek, glance, stare, glare, scowl) and adjectives differing in intensity (e.g., large, gigantic) by defining or choosing them or by acting out the meanings.
    So in first grade, there is more practice of the same actions (ie verbs) that we first saw in the standards in kindergarten but students will also get to work with adjectives. The standards limit the differences to intensity which is an idea that requires some unpacking.

    2nd Grade: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.2.5.B
    Distinguish shades of meaning among closely related verbs (e.g., toss, throw, hurl) and closely related adjectives (e.g., thin, slender, skinny, scrawny).
    In second grade, the shades of meaning in adjectives are not limited to just intensity but to other distinctions.

    By 3rd grade, figurative language is added to these strand. The shades of meaning level continues to increase where students are no longer just acting them out but should be able to work with them in terms of comprehension and expression:
    Distinguish shades of meaning among related words that describe states of mind or degrees of certainty (e.g., knew, believed, suspected, heard, wondered).

    In 4th and 5th, students skills in shades of meaning and word relationships:
    CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.4.5.C Demonstrate understanding of words by relating them to their opposites (antonyms) and to words with similar but not identical meanings (synonyms).
    CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.5.5.C Use the relationship between particular words (e.g., synonyms, antonyms, homographs) to better understand each of the words.

  • July 18, 2016 at 11:44 pm

    I, too, love shades of meaning. Nuances of language are so cool and the best part is that kids get it! They feel powerful when they realize they can make word choices that allow them to ‘say what they mean and mean what they say.’ Don’t get me started! Shades of meaning are fun and relatively easy to teach if you start with words students know, then introduce synonyms they don’t. For example, give kids big, large, gigantic, huge, enormous, and humongous, ask them to put them in order from least big to most big, and get out of the way while they argue over whether or not gigantic is bigger than enormous! Then, add synonyms that stretch their understanding of the concept big- colossal, husky, ample, immense, mammoth or vast. Throw in questions to help frame their thinking-would you describe a slice of pizza as gigantic, husky, or huge? Is the ocean enormous or vast? Did the baby take an ample step or a big step? These lessons and investigations build vocabulary and increase comprehension much better than using a thesaurus to list synonyms for big!

    The opportunities are endless and appear in writing and reading. Authors choose words carefully; words don’t just fall out of the sky and land on the page. For example, in “Zak’s Lunch” by Margie Palatini, “Zak skipped down the stairs two at a time and ran into the kitchen.” He didn’t just go down the stairs, he skipped because that is what energetic kids do when mom calls them for lunch! “George pounded close behind and skidded across the linoleum.” Why does George pound? Because George is a Saint Bernard!! Can you imagine a Saint Bernard coming down the stairs in any other fashion? These are not hard words. They are not obscure. They are words kids should encounter every day during read alouds, in good basal readers, in literature, picture books, and in songs. They are great words, in meaningful context and kids love being taught how to tune into them and use them! I couldn’t agree with you more John- synonyms do not mean the same thing! To settle for that over simplified version is naïve. The beauty of synonyms is in how they are different! And, how their differences make our language, both written and spoken, unique, beautiful, and rich.


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