Help children determine shades of meaning

Shades of meaning can be difficult for some children to interpret. What’s the difference between “yell” and “holler” or “huge” and “enormous”?

Dr. Timothy Rasinski, a professor at Kent State University, has come up with a fun way for children to work on distinguishing between close meanings. Here’s what he suggests:

  • 3 images of a muscleman--skinny, with muscles, really builtGo to the paint store and select five paint chips which are slightly louder or softer than one another, or darker or lighter. For each student you are working with, pick several sets of these color chips. The colors themselves don’t matter, but they should show incremental differences in color.
  • Offer the student three to five words  to distinguish among, such as whisper, state, exclaim, yell, and murmur. Give younger children fewer choices.
  • Let the child choose the word with the weakest word meaning.  Ask the child to write that word on the weakest color chip. Then let the child choose the strongest word meaning and write that word on the strongest color chip. Let the child arrange the other words in order on the other chips.
  • Have the child lay the cards on a table from weakest to strongest or vice versa. Let the child discuss why he chose the order he did.
  • For really young children who cannot read yet, pictures can be used instead of words for some ideas.

What kinds of word choices work well for this exercise? I would use verbs, nouns or adjectives that are similar. Go to a thesaurus to find near synonyms such as must, ought to, should; ignore, neglect, let slide; tuba, trumpet, trombone, flute, whistle.

Provide words from varied disciplines: square, rhombus, quadrilateral, rectangle; knoll, mountain, peak, ridge, hill; quiet, silent, still, peaceful, hushed; business person, entrepreneur, magnate, tycoon, merchant; eagle, hummingbird, dove, raven, peacock.

Many times students will disagree on the ordering. What is important is not the choices they decide on, but the thinking they use to make their choices. If you have an urge to say, “No, this one should come before that one,” let the child explain his thinking, and as long as it makes sense, accept it. This is a game in which the process is more important than the end result.

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