Studying unfamiliar words in a novel or play—especially from significant passages that establish tone or convey theme—is essential to understand the deeper meanings of a literary text. For every book that we teach at Literary Focus, students are expected to learn the definitions and contexts of twenty words. Before students begin the novel or play, they receive a list that is divided into four words per reading assignment, which means students have a vocabulary quiz after the fifth reading assignment in a unit. Below is the vocabulary list that we use for Lorraine Hansberry's play A Raisin in the Sun:
During the first unit of the year, students work in groups after the first reading assignment to complete a study matrix for the first four words on the list. Before students use dictionaries to find the definition that best fits the context, they try to identify the part of speech and then guess the word's definition based on the way it is used in the text.
When students look at the way "indictment" is used in the first sentence of the matrix, we hope that they will be able to identify the word as a noun because it is the object of a preposition. If students do not know the grammatical rules for prepositions, however, we encourage them to substitute other possible words in that spot—like "fear," "pain," or "loneliness"—to try to help them identify the part of speech of any word in that position.
Once students have correctly identified the part of speech, they try to guess the definition of the word based on the contextual clues around it. We know from the sentence that Walter Lee is "intense," "nervous," and "erratic," so any negative definition for "indictment" would be a logical assumption. After students share and provide rationales for their guesses, they look up the words in a dictionary and choose the definition that they think best fits the context.
Students might struggle, however, choosing the most appropriate definition for some words. For example, when students look up the word "indictment, they will see the following three options in most dictionaries:
When looking at those options, students should recognize that Hansberry uses the word to reflect a tone that is present in Walter Lee's voice. The first definition is a legal term, which students should understand does not fit the context. The second definition implies that Walter Lee's voice contains "strong disapproval" of what he sees around him. This definition works fairly well and may be the reason that he tends to lash out at people around him.
The third definition is more specific, however, and fully captures the complexity of Walter Lee's frustration. He is quick to accuse others, not just to show his "strong disapproval" of their words or actions, but also to charge them of wrongdoing. We discover quickly that Walter Lee feels like a failure in his own life, and to mask his insecurity, he criticizes others and blames them for his own shortcomings. As a result of what we know of Walter Lee's character, the third definition best fits the context and should be the definition students ultimately choose to study for the quiz.
Once we have discussed the four best definitions and answered any questions about the context in which the words are used, students take a practice quiz so they understand the format of how they will be assessed when they take the real vocabulary quiz after studying all twenty words:
Students generally find the practice quiz easy, but it becomes more difficult when there are twenty words rather than four. After the first reading assignment, students are responsible for looking up the remaining words on their own and studying their contexts by highlighting and underlining them in the text. After the fifth reading assignment, students will have a night to study the words before taking the quiz. Students should be made aware, however, that there will be ten words in the definition section of the quiz and ten words in the context section. Students will not know which words will be in which section, so they should study both the definition and context of every word.
To minimize the time required to grade vocabulary quizzes and final exams, we use a Scantron machine, if possible. Students fill out the blue side of the answer sheet for the vocabulary quiz and the green side for the final exam at the end of the unit.
If you work in a large school, you probably have access to an existing Scantron machine, but if your school does not have one, it is worth asking your department chair or principal to purchase one. They are expensive if you buy a new one from Apperson, but you can usually find used ones fairly cheaply on eBay or other online re-sellers.
If your school uses a Learning Management System (LMS) like Canvas, another option is to create online quizzes that are automatically graded when students complete them. In this format, it is often helpful to change the matching questions to multiple-choice to replicate those found on standardized tests.
For instance, in the vocabulary quiz above, an alternative way of writing the first question in the "Definition" section would be the following:
1. Which word best fits the following definition?
a belief, culture, or practice that does not acknowledge God or the Bible
One benefit to this format is that you can choose words from the vocabulary list that have the same part of speech—in this case, nouns—to make the selection a bit more authentic. For the first question in the "Context" section, the format might look like the following:
11. Which word best fits the following context?
She parades for RUTH, her hair completely hidden by the headdress; she is __________________ fanning herself with an ornate oriental fan, mistakenly more like Butterfly than any Nigerian that ever was.
Regardless of format, it is important to remind students that the purpose of studying new words is not just to expand their vocabularies, but to help them understand the literary work more fully. Every word in a novel or play contains potential significance, so students need to learn what every word means and how the author or playwright uses those words to establish tone and convey theme.
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