Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Teaching the Vocabulary of Language Arts

In any English classroom, there’s a lot of vocabulary that has to be covered throughout the year.  In addition to the vocabulary from the stories and articles that you read, there is the vocabulary that is specific to our subject – and there’s a lot of it!  There are the story elements, poetry terms, genres of reading, types of writing, figurative language terms, terms about vocabulary itself, and more!

No matter how you divide it among the different units that you teach, it’s a lot of terms that your kids need to understand as they progress in their language arts skills.  The good thing is that, like with other language arts elements, these literary terms tend to come up again and again throughout the year so your kids will get a lot of chances to practice. 

Story Elements
Characterization, setting, plot, conflict, and theme.  What else? Maybe types of conflicts, plot elements, examples of themes – nearly every main story element can be broken down into its own list of more literary terms to teach! 

But to me, story elements are the easiest terms to teach because every story that you read is a ready-to-use mentor text.  Each time your students complete a story map, plot map, or other story organizer they are practicing using these terms.

Poetry Terms
You might include types of poems here, or sound elements of poetry, or figurative language, or maybe all three!  Of course, figurative language will fit just as well with fiction readings, and it can also be found in non-fiction, although this may be more for the older kids. 

For types of poetry, I like to have kids make a collection of their favorite poems of each type, maybe by making a booklet with their own hand-written copies of the poems, or a chart with a description of each poem and an illustration.  Sound elements are fun to search for, too, but can be a little difficult to find, so it might take a little time to set up this lesson.

Genres of Reading
Genres of fiction, genres of non-fiction, and oh yes, types of poems could be included here too!  My dilemma was always just which genres, and how many, to include – any suggestions?

One thing that comes to mind in this area is a library activity about finding different types of books on the shelves, along with suggestions from your friendly librarian for some good books in each genre.  Another idea would be to have the class, maybe one small group at a time, sort through the classroom library and organize your books by genre.

Types of Writing

Once I started to look at this group at a whole, the list turned out to be longer that I had thought, too.  Even a basic list might include:  narrative fiction, narrative non-fiction, biography, autobiography, personal essay, descriptive, informational, expository, explanatory, opinion, argument, and persuasive, prose, and poetry.

But in addition to these basic types of literature, kids also do plenty of daily writing, and so do many adults, that is more in the form of lists, charts, forms, social media comments, and writing combined with graphics.  Maybe these types aren’t as necessary to teach, but they could be used as a bridge into more sustained writing activities.

Figurative Language Terms
These are the fun ones, but they’re not easy!  How many times have you had to remind a student of the difference between a simile and a metaphor, or explain that all exaggerations aren’t automatically hyperbole?  And isn’t it fun to teach a word like “onomatopoeia,” – who but an English teacher would even try?

The fun part is when kids begin to really get the concept and appreciate the figurative language in stories and poems that they read.  To introduce each literary term, find a few great examples that kids can copy in their notebooks.  It will help them to remember the terms much better than just a definition. The example that has stayed in my mind all these years for the term simile is a line from “Old Friends,” an old song by Paul Simon about some elderly people passing the time by sitting in the park.  These “Old friends, Sat on their park bench Like bookends.”

Vocabulary Terms

Yes, there are even terms about vocabulary itself that middle graders will still need to learn.  Connotation and denotation, for example.  And don’t you know of a few kids who still get synonyms and antonyms mixes up?  Many kids already know prefix, suffix, and root, but how many of them know the term affix? 

Altogether, it’s a lot to teach.   Oh well, English teachers can handle it.  Anyone who can teach a term like “onomatopoeia” to middle grade kids can handle just about anything!

I’ve found it useful to have one big resource that I can go to as needed to introduce or reinforce each little set of terms as needed, and so I’ve collected all of my little bits and pieces of literary terms information and combined them into one big, organized PowerPoint presentation.  Literary Terms includes definitions and examples for 77 literary terms, and it includes student review slides at the end of each section as well as student note pages to print out with definitions for all 77 terms.  Check out the preview for more details if you think this is something that might be useful to you.

I would be interested in hearing which literary terms teachers at various middle school grades include.  Are there any categories that I could add to my lists?  Or any that don’t seem necessary?  Click on the comments below and let me know what you think.

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Blog post by Sharon from Classroom in the Middle where you can read more about teaching language arts topics like reading skills, the writing process, and vocabulary in the middle grades,


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