Word Choice Activities and Minilessons

Feb 20, 2009 by


"The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug."
                                                           –Mark Twain

Verb Charades

Using index card, write a different verb on each card.  Place the card in a bag.  Have students take turns selecting a card acting out the verb on the card.  Classmates try to guess the verb.

Noun Scattergories

Preparation:  Make game sheets that list several categories with a blank beside each.  Photocopy the game sheets. Prepare a ziploc bag with 26 letter tiles or cards—one labeled for each letter of the alphabet.

To play:  Divide students into small groups.  Give each group a copy of a game sheet.  Draw a letter from the bag.  Each group writes the letter at the top of the sheet and works together to think of words beginning with that letter for each category.  Teacher designates a time limit.

Scoring:  At the end of the time limit, each group shares answers.  A point is earned for each word that was not found by any other groups.  Double points may be earned for answers that have two words beginning with the same letter (i.e.:  jello jigglers, cotton candy).

Traveling Books

Class traveling books are a great way to introduce children to the parts of speech. 

Dramatize Verbs

Read aloud a book such as Denise Fleming’s In a Small, Small Pond.  Discuss why Fleming chose the verbs that she used.  Have students “become” the pond creatures as they “wriggle like tadpoles” or “hover like dragonflies.”  Repeat with other books such as In the Tall, Tall Grass. This activity not only introduces them to many new verbs and rich vocabulary but also helps them learn the meanings of the words as they act them out.

Adjective Activity

Read aloud Good Night, Good Knight by Shelley Moore Thomas.  Reread the book without using the adjectives.  Which version sounds better?  Why?  Optional: put the text on the overhead and cover adjectives with sticky notes.




Cracking Open Words

Georgia Heard uses the analogy of cracking open a geode to describe one of her word choice mini-lessons.  (She even cracks one open in front of the class). On the outside a geode looks like an ordinary rock.  You have to crack it open to discover the beautiful crystal hidden inside.  Words are like this.  Words like fun, nice, pretty, wonderful, and scary are ordinary, generic words.  Have students compile a list of these tired, overused words and phrases.  Then have them “crack them open” to reveal the deeper meaning behind the word/s and provide mind pictures for the reader.   Encourage them to close their eyes and picture the person, place, event, etc. that they are describing.  They should think about what they see and how they feel as if they are really there.                   


Eg., “It was a nice day.”  
Cracked open, the sentence might read:
     “I lay in bed listening to the birds’ sweet melodies       
      outside my window.  The warm sunlight melted
      across my pillow, coaxing me out of bed.  It was
      the first day of summer vacation.”

Other sentences to crack open:
*I had a lot of fun.
*She is a nice person.
*Flowers are pretty.

Thesaurus Activities

  • Create a thesaurus section in a Quality Writing Notebook for tired words like nice, fun, like, said, went, walk.  Teach them that the word “thesaurus” comes from a Latin word meaning “treasure.”  This ties in well with the geode analogy described under "Cracking Open Words."  As students encounter synonyms for these words, encourage them to add the words to their thesauruses. 
  • Do whole class word hunts.  Create posters for these words and make class lists.  Read-aloud is a great time to collect these words.
  • Have students read through a piece of writing they have already worked on.  Have them look for tired words and replace them with “treasure” words from their thesauruses.
  • Give students a two-word phrase.  Have them work in pairs, using a thesaurus to find synonyms for the words.  At first just ask them to change the adjective.  Eventually, have them change both the adjective and the noun. 

funny movie  =   hilarious flick
nice house =  cozy bungalow
pretty dress  =  stylish gown

Be Specific

The more specific the verb, the more accurately the writer can convey an image or create a scene.  Give students a sentence with the verb blanked out.  Have them brainstorm a list of verbs that could be used to complete the sentence.

The car _________ down the road.
skidded, raced, swerved, putzed, flew

I explain to students that each time we change the verb, I get a different picture in my head.  Writers want to create mind pictures for the reader through their word choice.

Nouns need to be specific and concrete, too.  Have students brainstorm specific nouns for a list of vague ones.

bird = cardinal
dog = German shepherd
things = paper clips
flower = chrysanthemum
boy = student

Then have students look at a piece of their own writing and find some vague, generic nouns that they can replace with more specific ones.

Retire “Tired” Words

(a) big
kind of
(a) little
sort of



“Don’t be kind of bold. Be bold.”

                                                             –Wm. Zinsser



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