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High School — Reading
Acquisition of Vocabulary

Knowing a word requires both understanding its definition, and understanding how to use it. As students develop their knowledge of words, they learn to choose language that expresses their ideas precisely. As a result, they become more sensitive to the subtle shades of meaning in what others say and write.

Students should be able to infer reasonably accurate definitions for unfamiliar words based on context. They should be able to recognize synonyms, identify and understand figurative language, and come up with clear definitions for many different words.

Learning new words is a lifelong pursuit. Whenever we study a new subject, read a novel from a different era, or learn about a particular place, we encounter new words, or familiar words used in new ways. Students should be encouraged not just to learn particular words, but to enjoy learning words in general, and to have different strategies for doing so.

The Ohio Academic Content Standards establish the following expectations for student performance in the area of Acquisition of Vocabulary:

  • Students must know and use a wide variety of vocabulary skills and strategies to comprehend new words encountered in text;
  • Students must use analytical and inferential skills to explore word meanings and relationships.

The content in this Teaching Tool is based on Ohio's Academic Content Standards and Benchmarks and includes types of questions asked on the Ohio Graduation Test. While various suggestions and activities for working with students are included, this Teaching Tool is designed to complement a rigorous, research-based curriculum, not to substitute for one.

Acquisition of Vocabulary

1. Acquisition of Vocabulary

Click on the following benchmarks for more information and for links to annotated OGT items.


Benchmark A: Use context clues and text structures to determine the meaning of new vocabulary.

Benchmark A: Use context clues and text structures to determine the meaning of new vocabulary.

An important vocabulary building technique is linking new words to specific contexts. Since we hear words used in a variety of places and ways, we develop a rich web of associations around them. Our understanding of a word becomes more concrete and nuanced than it would be if we simply studied a dictionary definition. To address words in context, many larger dictionaries contain "usage notes" at the end of each definition.

For instance, we might know that frost has to do with cold, but we know much more if we can speak of "frostbitten fingers," "a warm house on a frosty morning," "frost on the windowsill," and so on.

Here are some ways to use context to help with learning new words:

  • Word roundup -- Before beginning a new topic, conduct a "word roundup"--a review of the vocabulary students think they might encounter given the title or illustrations in a passage. For instance, if students were about to study the career of a famous doctor, they might begin by listing some of the words they associate with doctors: stethoscope, penicillin and so on. After reading, have students add any additional words they've learned. This exercise stimulates students' thinking about content-related words and helps readers associate vocabulary with particular subjects.
  • Research a topic -- Have students choose a topic of interest, then ask them to become experts by picking out a dozen new words relating to that topic. Encourage them to use the words in context as part of a general presentation to the class.
  • Research a word -- Have students choose a word for a short study. What does this word mean and where does it come from? How is it used in newspapers, books and elsewhere in print? What does the student associate with this word? This activity allows students to examine a word both in isolation (to examine word parts) and in context (to consider connotation and nuance).

Once students have studied a new word in context, they should put it to use in a variety of ways. For instance, they might use the following vocabulary strategies:

  • Explain the word in their own terms;
  • Use it to explain what they know about the word ("joy is being so happy that you're jumping up and down");
  • Use the word in sentences that suggest the word's meaning.

Click here to view an annotated item from the 2005 Ohio Graduation Test that addresses this benchmark.

Click here to view an annotated item from the 2005 Ohio Graduation Test that addresses this benchmark.

Click here to view an annotated item from the 2005 Ohio Graduation Test that addresses this benchmark.


Benchmark B: Examine the relationships of analogical statements to infer word meanings.

Benchmark B: Examine the relationships of analogical statements to infer word meanings.

Synonyms and Antonyms -- By thinking about the synonyms and antonyms of any given word, students can expand their vocabularies to communicate shades of meaning. Students should recognize that there are several ways to express any given concept. The trick is to select the best words. When readers recognize a word, they can draw conclusions about the meanings of other words in the text.

Help students expand their knowledge of the relationships between words with the following activities:

  • Rewrites -- Write a dull sentence on the board and have students bring it to life using more exciting synonyms. Talk about the value in using vivid words. Challenge students to visualize the sentence, and then ask them to picture the image after they have embellished the writing with more expressive synonyms.
  • Is and Is Not -- Have students write a word, then write synonyms in one column ("Words the same or similar") and antonyms in the other ("Words opposite in meaning"). For instance, students might work in groups to come up with different ways of saying that they are tired, afraid or excited. By keeping track of words in their notes, students will get in the habit of paying attention to the relationships between words.
  • From lists to explanatory sentences -- Synonym/antonym lists can serve as the basis for sentences that define the words. Illustrating words with concrete examples confirms whether students have inferred the correct meaning.

Connotation and Denotation -- We are often asked to choose between words which have the same (or almost the same) meaning. Students should be familiar with different ways of understanding what words mean. In particular, they should know the difference between a word's denotation and a word's connotation.

  • A word's denotation is what the word literally means. For example, the word new denotes "a thing that recently came to be."
  • A word's connotation is the association (emotional or otherwise) that the word creates. For example, the word new can connote "a thing that is better than the old thing."

A good way to lead a discussion of connotations is to have the class make a list of words that have positive, negative or neutral connotations. In so doing, students should:

  • Discuss why they place a word in a given category.
  • See that a word's connotation often depends on its context (new can have a negative connotation if, for example, the safety of tried-and-true methods is desired).

You might also ask students to consider how formal and informal writing require language with different connotations. Ask students to draw on their experience with using everyday language to express shades of meaning.


Benchmark C: Recognize the importance and function of figurative language.

Benchmark C: Recognize the importance and function of figurative language.

Similes and Metaphors -- Often students will pass over a figurative expression without trying to figure out what it means. Ensure that students know the terms simile and metaphor, and have them underline and discuss the similes and metaphors in their reading. Here are some thoughts to initiate discussion:

  • Similes and metaphors are ways of comparing two objects that are not normally thought of as being alike. In this simile/metaphor, what two things are being compared?
  • How could the author have said the same thing more plainly?
  • By using figurative language, what did the author accomplish?
  • Would you say that this is an effective simile/metaphor? Why or why not? Can you think of a better one?

Have students choose a simile/metaphor from their reading, and write a paragraph that addresses one of the questions above. You might also consider the following activities to deepen students' appreciation of the purpose and function of figurative language:

  • Review the lyrics to a song -- Remind students that figurative language is part of our everyday experience. Pop music, for example, is filled with similes and metaphors. Have students bring in the lyrics to a favorite song that contains similes/metaphors. Ask them to discuss what the similes/metaphors in their song mean, and then write a paragraph in which they develop an extended simile/metaphor about what it's like to listen to their song.
  • Contrast similes and metaphors -- Read a text that contains similes/metaphors. Have students change similes to metaphors and metaphors to similes. This exercise will reinforce the distinction between the two types of figurative language and will also allow students to consider why a writer chooses a particular expression to convey an idea.
  • Describe a character -- Have each student choose a person from history, the news, or a story that the class is currently reading. Then have each student write five facts about that character. Have students come up with five similes and five metaphors for their characters, basing each on one of the facts they know about the person. Creating original similes and metaphors engages students with figurative language, putting them in the writer's seat.

Idioms -- An idiom is an expression whose literal meaning is different from its figurative meaning. The phrase "seeing red" means being extremely angry, not actually seeing the color red. Idioms are difficult for individuals learning a new language because their literal translation can be perplexing, and there are no hints as to the figurative translation. For example, the literal meaning of the expression "it's raining cats and dogs" is that cats and dogs are falling from the sky. The figurative meaning is "it's raining heavily outside." Some idioms are so common in our everyday language that it's easy to forget they're idioms. For example, many people will say they "ran into someone" when they saw someone they knew.

Idiomatic language is common in daily conversation, so readers recognize these non-literal sayings as a manner of speaking that is natural to native speakers. Ask your students to analyze why a speaker might warn that "a house divided against itself cannot stand," why an author might describe a situation as "the blind leading the blind," or why a character might be described as "having a chip on his shoulder." In these examples, the author does not intend to describe a divided house, people without sight or a block of wood upon a character's shoulder. The expressions suggest common understandings of individuals involved in conflict, demonstrating lack of leadership or holding a grudge.

Familiarize students with idioms through the following activities:

  • Comparing meanings -- Ask students to brainstorm a number of idioms. Then have them compare the figurative meanings to the literal meanings.
  • Lost in translation -- Have pairs of students write notes to each other that are full of idioms. Then have the partners translate the notes. Have them discuss how the meaning changes and the difficulty a speaker of another language would have understanding the passage.

Allusion -- Sometimes authors make an indirect reference to a well-known person, place or event in their writing. Even though the reference appears only briefly, this kind of literary device, called allusion, is always significant. Mythological allusions are common references in Western literature. These stories from the past have layers of meaning. Because they have influenced the thoughts of many great authors, echoes of these stories appear in literary works throughout history. For example, , many of the actions in the play A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare are influenced by the juice of a flower that has been pierced by one of Cupid's arrows. Cupid, the god of love, carried a quiver of arrows, some with golden heads, which inspired love, and others with lead, which caused aversion.

Allusions are often intended to help the reader gain insight into an individual's character, thoughts or actions. Knowledge of mythology enables students to identify allusions in context and understand how they inform the author's work.

Student work with allusions might include the following:

  • Looking at lyrics -- Songwriters, like Bob Dylan, Sting and U2's Bono, occasionally use allusions to convey meaning in their songs. Have students find the lyrics to one of these artists's songs (or they may find another songwriter who uses allusion); then have them research what the allusions in the song mean and discuss how they are being used.
  • Create a classroom language -- Ask students to create their own mythological allusions to describe books the class has read together. Allusions should describe a range of emotions, actions, characteristics, etc. Post them throughout the room and have students use them during class discussions.

Click here to view an annotated item from the 2005 Ohio Graduation Test that addresses this benchmark.


Benchmark D: Explain how different events have influenced and changed the English language.

Benchmark D: Explain how different events have influenced and changed the English language.

Language is constantly evolving. We communicate using a lexicon of words that have changed according to the needs and circumstances of the speakers and writers who use them. Readers often separate words into parts for close scrutiny. We can take a closer look at word histories and components to fully understand the meanings of words.

The study of word history, known as etymology, can help students establish important associations among words. When students begin to recognize that a word's origin can affect its spelling or pronunciation, they gain a better understanding of why the English language is so varied and unpredictable. Students should also study how word meanings have changed over time, largely through usage--there are whole dictionaries devoted to the history of word meanings. Or, you might turn to the comprehensive bulk of The Oxford English Dictionary.

The following vocabulary strategies will open discussions about how our knowledge of the changing nature of language influences our understanding of word meanings.

  • What's in a name? -- Ask the students to consider the etymology of their names. Then have them trace their name's history. This might include a family story that inspired it or a famous person who had the same name. You might also have students explain their nicknames and last names.
  • The history of slang -- Discuss slang words that are figurative. "When someone says something is cool, chances are you understand that it's not cold but fun, interesting or nice. Why are these fitting meanings for cool?" Have students write the real or make-believe history of a slang expression. How did this word come to be used this way?
  • Word Wayfarers -- Develop a "Word Wayfarers" unit to track where words originate. Identify loanwords from other cultures. You might also encourage students to examine cognates from other languages to illustrate the way that some root words have evolved.
  • Historical context -- Show students a passage from a text written a long time ago (such as a Shakespeare play) where a familiar word has a different meaning. Discuss how context can mean not only the words around a word, but the historical and cultural context in which a text was written.

Click here to view an annotated item from the 2005 Ohio Graduation Test that addresses this benchmark.


Benchmark E. Apply knowledge of roots and affixes to determine the meanings of complex words and subject area vocabulary.

Benchmark E. Apply knowledge of roots and affixes to determine the meanings of complex words and subject area vocabulary.

When students come across a word they don't know, they should realize that sometimes the words they do know can help. It can be especially helpful to see that words are made up of basic building blocks and that these parts of words are related and repeated. For instance, a student who has some familiarity with prefixes, suffixes, and roots should be able to see the relationship between:

  • Uncommon and unusual;
  • Thankful and grateful;
  • Audio and audience.

Because many basic parts of words are so common, learning just one can open the door to several previously intimidating words. The following activities help students learn several words at once.

  • Getting started -- Begin a discussion of word parts by asking the class to come up with a list of words that use a common prefix such as re- ("research, repeat, return...") and then point out how the re- interacts with the meaning of the root word ("when you see re- in front of a verb, it usually means 'do it again'"). It may be easiest for students to work first with words where the base word is immediately apparent, such as -source or -search. Students can then use the dictionary to find the origin of challenging words such as repeat, whose root is not readily apparent.
  • Make a word web -- Write a Greek or Latin word root on the board, circle it, and then make offshoots that represent words derived from that root.
  • Fill in the blanks -- Take a short reading passage and replace some of the word-endings with blanks. Ask students to fill in the blanks with the suffixes they think best complete the sentences. Discuss the kind of information that students used to make their choices.

Many English words have origins in other languages, especially Greek and Latin. By learning Greek and Latin roots, students can figure out meanings of many new words. As mentioned previously, words can be built, and these roots are the basic blocks. Roots give words their basic meanings. Prefixes and suffixes can be added to form permutations of those words. The Latin word populus means "people." A host of words in the English language are derived from popul-, its root. For example: population, popular, populous.

See if students can generate words that are built from the Latin root rect- which means "straight or straighten."

Use the following table to discuss and explore some Greek and Latin roots.

RootMeaning OriginExample
art-craft, skillLatinartistic
dict-to sayLatindictate
viv-; vit-lifeLatinvivacious; vital

Click here to view an annotated item from the 2005 Ohio Graduation Test that addresses this benchmark.


Benchmark F. Use multiple resources to enhance comprehension of vocabulary.

Benchmark F. Use multiple resources to enhance comprehension of vocabulary.

We've all encountered words that we don't recognize. Instead of passing over such words, encourage students to be active readers for new vocabulary. Students should get in the habit of asking several questions:

  • Does the passage's overall meaning offer clues about the meaning of the word?
  • Does the author define the word somewhere else in the passage?
  • Is the word completely new, or do I have some sense of what it might mean?
  • Does the word make me think of a word I already know?
  • Can I recognize any part of the word?

Each week, write on the board a short paragraph that contains two or three new vocabulary words. Discuss with students how to learn these new words. Emphasize the range of strategies that can help ("Okay, that's a good solution. Now, can anyone think of something else we might do?").

Remind students to:

  • Use the dictionary and glossary. Students may know to use a dictionary, but they might not know how to take full advantage of it. Read a usage note with the class and discuss how it works and what it means. When the entire class is stuck on a particular word, ask one student to look up its meaning. Be sure to ask the student such questions as, "Is there more than one meaning? Does the entry say how to pronounce the word?"
  • Practice defining words through word study. Without a dictionary, the study of words and their definitions is impossible. A typical dictionary will tell you, for example, that the word "cloak" is a noun with two definitions: 1. a loose outer garment, such as a cape. 2. something that covers or conceals. It will also tell you that "cloak" is a verb, meaning to cover or conceal. Keeping a dictionary close at hand is essential for developing vocabulary.
  • Underline unfamiliar words. When students encounter a word that gives them difficulty, encourage them to keep reading and return to the word later to find its exact dictionary definition.
  • Write new words in a vocabulary notebook. Specify how you want students to prepare their vocabulary entries. In addition to the correct spelling and definition, they could include part of speech and sample sentences using the word.
  • Use the word as much as possible. The more times a student uses a word, the more familiar it becomes. When the class learns a word, invoke it constantly ("What's that? Surreptitious activity?").
  • Ask a friend. If a student is unsure of the meaning of a word, encourage that student to ask a reading partner or a friend for help.
  • Create word banks. Ask students to make their own dictionaries: every time they encounter a new word or an old word that they can't define, they should write it and its definition on an index card, along with a sentence that uses the word in context.
  • Collect word facts. Students should make a list of "facts" they know about a word. "What do I think this word means? What parts of this word do I know? Where would I be likely to find this word? Why is this word important?"



Help With Fundamentals

These activities can help you address the fundamentals of Acquisition of Vocabulary with your students:

Activity 1

Dictionary Scavenger Hunt

Students often view the dictionary as simply a book for defining words. They do not realize how much other information it contains. This activity gives students an understanding of the dictionary's versatility.

Using the list below as inspiration, generate a list of specific words you want students to "hunt" for using the dictionary. Then, working independently or in pairs, ask students to complete the scavenger hunt tasks. This is a great way to introduce vocabulary for a new unit or novel. Have students:

  • Determine the root of a word;
  • Define a word by defining its prefix, suffix and root;
  • Indicate whether the root is Latin, Greek or Anglo-Saxon;
  • Find the most common definition of a word;
  • Find an uncommon definition of a word;
  • Determine a word's part of speech;
  • Indicate a word's antonym;
  • List three synonyms for a word;
  • Create a sentence that defines the word in context (sentences such as "The definition of this word is…" are not allowed);
  • Create an antonym of the word by adding or changing the prefix or suffix;
  • List all of the words that contain the same root (e.g., biological, biography, biologist, biorhythm, autobiography, etc.);
  • Define a word's homophones;
  • Determine how changing a word's prefix or suffix will change its meaning;
  • Find the definition of prefixes and suffixes;
  • List the idiomatic phrases in which a specific word appears.
Activity 2

Create-a-Word Game

This activity encourages students to use their knowledge of prefixes, suffixes and roots to define new words. Working in teams of two, have students create three decks of cards, using three different color index cards. Ask them to write a prefix on each card in the first deck and then write PREFIX on the back. On each card in the second deck, students should write a common Latin, Greek or Anglo-Saxon root word and then write ROOT on the back. On the last deck, have students write a suffix on each card and then write SUFFIX on the back.

Armed with their cards and a dictionary, each two-person team should find another team to challenge. Shuffle all of the prefix cards, all of the root cards, and all of the suffix cards, and lay each deck face down. Team number one selects a prefix card, root card and suffix card and turns them face up on the table. They read the word they created, and determine its meaning by defining the prefix, root and suffix. They then decide if it is a nonsense word or a real word. For example, if the team turns over pre-, gam- and -y, they would define the word as "occurring before marriage" and determine that it is a nonsense word.

Team number two uses the dictionary to determine whether team one is correct. Each correct response earns one point. Team number two can challenge the definition and/or the finding of the word's authenticity by saying "CHALLENGE" and stating what it is challenging. If challenged, team one uses the dictionary to check its definition and/or whether the word is in the dictionary. If the challenge is correct, team one gives two points to team two. If the challenge is incorrect, team two forfeits two points to team one. Then the two teams switch roles. Whichever team has the most points at the end of ten rounds wins.

Activity 3

Figurative Characterization

Comprehending figurative language while reading literature can be overwhelming. This activity enables students to practice using figurative language both as a whole class and independently.

As a class, pick a main character from a novel that the entire class has read. Ask students to develop similes and metaphors for the character. Then have the class decide on a symbol that best represents the character. The symbols should be consistent with the time period and tone of the book. For example, despite her "matchmaker" status, it would be inappropriate to select a cellular phone as a symbol for the main character of Jane Austen's Emma. Finally, for an extra challenge, ask the class to decide on a mythological allusion they could make if they were writing about the character. For example, a reference to Cupid would be a fitting allusion for Emma.

Working independently, students should select a character from a novel they are currently reading and create similes, metaphors, symbols and allusions for these characters. If the character is from a novel covered in class, ask students to share their ideas in groups. Ask students to present their ideas.

Additional Instruction and Practice

These activities may be useful for students who require additional instruction and practice with Acquisition of Vocabulary

Activity 1

Word of the Week

Students frequently fail to master new vocabulary because they rarely use the new words beyond the class assignment. This activity offers an opportunity for students to practice defining and using new vocabulary words. In addition to unit vocabulary, ask students to contribute words for "word of the week." There are also "word-a-day" Web sites that will send you a new word daily.

On the board or overhead projector, post the "word of the week." Ask students to use the dictionary to define the word, including its root, and any suffixes or prefixes. Determine its part of speech, indicate and define any homophones, and write one sentence using the word in context. Throughout the week, have students keep track of when, where and how they hear or see the word being used. Award points or reward students who use the word appropriately in class discussions and in their writing.

Activity 2

Autobiographical Allusions

To make students more comfortable with allusions, ask them to write autobiographical narratives in which they describe an object or event using allusions. For example a student athlete may allude to herself as Athena, goddess of war, when describing her team's victory. Another student may reference Apollo and his chariot when describing the sunny weather on a camping trip.

Literary allusions, when an author references the work of an influential writer, are common in Western literature. Shakespeare's works are perhaps the most referenced by other authors. For an added challenge, ask students to create their own literary allusion for their personal narratives. For example, a student feeling betrayed by a friend may refer to Napoleon in Animal Farm.

Activity 3

Connotation Illustrations

Dictionaries give the denotation of a word--the literal definition. The context in which the word appears often provides the connotation--the association that the word creates. During this activity, students will identify a word's denotation and its various connotations. As a class, ask students to define a word. Then provide them with different situations in which the word is used with different connotations.

For example, ask students to consider the word "heavy." The literal definition is "weighty." It can have positive connotations, as when describing the weight of a piece of jewelry or the warmth of a coat. Used to describe someone's body type or the intensity of news, it can have negative connotations. Have students find examples of words that have both negative and positive connotations. Ask them to define the word on a piece of paper. On the other side of the paper, ask them to illustrate examples of positive and negative connotations of the word.

Advanced Work

These activities can help your students reach the next level in their understanding of Acquisition of Vocabulary.

Activity 1

Personal Dictionaries

Have students create personal dictionary entries for unfamiliar words they encounter independently or as a class. The personal dictionary entries should include the following:

  • What the student thinks the word means after defining it in context;
  • The dictionary definition (or definitions, if there is more than one);
  • The part of speech;
  • Usage note;
  • Illustrative example (using the word in context);
  • Root definition and language of origin;
  • Synonyms;
  • Antonyms;
  • Homophones and their definitions;
  • History of the word as indicated by the Oxford English Dictionary. Here students may encounter a great deal of information about the word. Encourage them to select the content that helps them understand how the word came to mean what it means today.
Activity 2

Expression Etymology

Have students explore the origin of such common expressions as "a stitch in time saves nine" and idioms like "it's raining cats and dogs." Ask students to write a history of the expression or idiom, including country of origin, the literal meaning of the expressions, its figurative meaning and how its meaning and use have changed over the years. For an added challenge, ask students to predict how the expression could change in the future in order to keep it relevant. Then have students present their findings to the class.

Activity 3

Annotated Analysis

A number of texts available to students have footnotes or endnotes that identify unusual vocabulary or various literary devices used by an author. In this activity, students use their figurative language skills to prepare their own annotated passages. Ask students to select a text that contains figurative language. Then have them identify the figurative language the author uses--similes, metaphors, personification, idioms and allusion--explaining what the language means. Students should also define any difficult vocabulary and identify examples of the context changing the connotation of a word.

Ask students to put this information together so that it can easily be used by other students. For example, a student may choose to present the information in book format, with the text on the left-hand pages and the analysis on the right-hand pages. Or they may choose to keep their analysis within the text but color-code each literary device.