Dyan Branstetter | November 2017

Building Vocabulary is Easy with this Arts Integrated Strategy

“Many research studies show that vocabulary is the best single indicator of intellectual ability and an accurate predictor of success in school.” (Elley, W. B. 1988 New Vocabulary: How do Children Learn New Words)

Whether you are a specialist, a general academics teacher, building aide or bus driver, every adult that interacts with students is a teacher of vocabulary. Students need to build vocabulary, especially academic vocabulary, from an early age. Especially those who come from disadvantaged homes.

“A child’s vocabulary is their passport to understanding and interpreting a wide range of texts. Unfortunately, many children from low-income settings enter school with significantly smaller vocabularies than their more economically advantaged peers. Hart & Risley’s (1995) research with young children showed a 30-million word gap by age three. This gap has an enormous impact on school success, with longitudinal research showing a strong correlation between the richness of vocabulary at age three and language test scores in vocabulary, listening, syntax and reading comprehension at ages 9 and 10.” (www.earlychildhoodwebinars.com/presentations/proven-strategies-early-education-administrators-can-use-to-help-teachers-close-the-vocabulary-gap-in-their-classrooms/)

Shades of Meaning

When tasked with teaching such an essential and challenging topic, arts integration can help. Just reading an ELA standard with the words “Distinguish shades of meaning…” is like a neon sign flashing “natural connection to visual art!” I’ve seen many activities that teachers have created using paint chips to show gradients of synonyms. This is a wonderful idea!

However, if we pull in color theory, we are able to teach the element of value as it relates to visual art as well as shades of content vocabulary, deepening understanding for both. With the following activity, students create their own “shades of meaning” vocabulary station to use again and again throughout the year.

Connecting Shades of Color and Shades of Meaning

  1. I begin by reviewing the visual art element of value. In art class, my 3rd-grade students learn about tinting and shading. I find that it is helpful for them to hear a brief explanation of the concept from me as well. Not only does this remind them of their prior knowledge, it helps bridge the vocabulary connection from the art room to my room. This video is helpful for beginning the conversation about value with intermediate students.  (Note: Value is typically a word that naturally connects in visual art, math and music, referring to a higher or lower amount. When placing words on the lighter end of a continuum, it does not mean that the word is a “weak” word to be replaced when revising a writing piece. I explain that the word value relates to the intensity of the word in relation to the context of the sentence.)
  2. Next, I explain that just like color, words can have different “shades” or gradients. Share the words, faint, blinding, bright, and dim. Together as a class, put them in order of intensity. (Find these and more, with an activity, for free here.)
  3. Explain that we are going to match these shades of meaning with shades of color. This can be done with pre-made paint strips, but to truly have students understand the color theory and idea of color value, it is best to have students make their own paint chips. (As a helpful perk, this blows engagement through the roof.)

Making Our Own Paint Chips:

Here are directions for making paint chips from Theresa Gillespie at Splats, Scraps, and Glue Blobs:

  1. “I give students two 9×12 papers (one at a time). The first we fold into 4 sections.
  2. On a palette (I use paper plates… 3 schools… no time to clean) I give students their choice of color and white.
  3. First, they paint one section the pure color.
  4. The next step is to add a little white to the color to make one tint – paint another section with that.
  5. Add more white paint to make a lighter tint and paint another section.
  6. The last section should be white with just a bit of color to paint the last section.
  7. The other paper is split into 3 sections.
  8. I have the students fold the paper in half and then divide one of the halves into 2.
  9. Give students their color and some black.
  10. For the 2 smaller sections they should add a small bit of black to the color to make a shade… then a bit more black for the other shade… and then even more for the darkest shade that will fill the larger section.”

I would suggest cutting the 9×12 papers lengthwise so that students complete the activity with 4.5 x 6 size paper, making sure that students label the back with their name. After the painted papers dry, laminate them all, finally having the students help to cut them.

Putting it Together: Semantic Gradients — Shades of Word Meaning:

  1. Remind students of the word intensity ordering they did as a class. Try a new set of words together, and show it on a continuum such as the one found here. Explain that these words can be placed on a continuum, and they can also be matched with color value to show their intensity. Demonstrate this with a dry erase marker on one of the laminated paint swatches, writing the word with the least intensity on the lightest color, to the word with the most intensity on the darkest color. Provide students with more word groupings (found here and here), and allow them to work as partners or teams to order the intensity of their words on their own paint swatches with a dry erase marker. Have a few groups present their work, and have the class determine if they agree or disagree with the word order, sharing their rationale for the order.
  2. Once students have participated in this scaffolded activity, they are prepared to do this as an independent station or activity throughout the year. As students master the idea of word gradients, their written and spoken vocabulary will grow tremendously. As an alternative to erasing the paint chips, posting the finished products and rotating them can provide students with easy access to synonyms when writing.

Extending the Strategy to Multiple Subjects:

The idea of “shades of meaning” could also apply the idea to other art forms. Once students have grasped the concept visually, they will be able to transfer it to movement. In ballet, students could order the intensity (essentially comparing and contrasting) tendu, degage, grand battement. In the art of tap dance, they could rank the intensity of sounds: brush, scuff, step, stamp, stomp. This could lead to music, where students could rank the intensity of volume: the lightest tints are pianissimo, and darkest shades are fortissimo. And finally with theater, by ranking the intensity of emotions. Have students practice acting out degrees of emotion. What subtle changes can we make to express the intensity of the words as they increase? This, of course, circles back around to enhancing the use of vocabulary in writing and storytelling.

Looking for more? There are many resources to extend or further explain this idea. Before getting lost in a sea of Pinterest links, find a few curated ones below!

Element of Value:

Semantic Gradients

Shades of Color/Shades of Meaning Paint Chip Activities:

Word list ideas:

About the Author

Dyan is a fifth grade teacher in a public school district in Lancaster, PA and has over 16 years of classroom experience. With a Masters of Science Education and a passion for dance and music, she strives to integrate the arts into the curriculum whenever possible. Dyan has a background in teaching advanced learners, and is devoted to using project based learning to help her students achieve 21st century learning skills and master the PA Core Standards.