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The Four-Square Method of Vocabulary Instruction

By Lenzi Hart

Teaching vocabulary from the novels we read is very important, but often teachers stick to one mode of vocabulary instruction: looking up the word in the dictionary. This article will explore easy but effective ways to teach vocabulary words from a novel.

Choosing the Words to Teach

Most classic novels have a teaching companion that lists words suggested to be taught as a part of the novel's vocabulary instruction. Resources like this are great, but are not always full-proof when it comes to selecting the best vocabulary from the chapter. Even having the teacher read through the novel and select vocabulary is not a sure-fire method of obtaining the best vocabulary list. Students are the key to the vocabulary equation!

As you read a chapter, have students write down words or phrases that are confusing or unclear. At the end of each chapter, have students compile a list, selecting words that are continually addressed by the class as a whole. You may be surprised how often students will list words that teachers assume students should already know! Selecting vocabulary in this manner not only engages students in their reading, but also gives them ownership in the vocabulary lesson.

What is the "Four-Square Method"?

As the title implies, the four-square method first involves a student drawing a box (it should take up half of their notebook paper) and dividing that box into four, even squares. The first square should be labeled (at the top) "synonyms", the next square "antonyms", the third square "drawing", and finally, the fourth square is labeled "sentence".

Using a thesaurus, dictionary, or the text's context clues, students should list two or three synonyms for the selected vocabulary word in square one, and do the same for selecting antonyms for square two. In square three, instruct students to come up with a visual representation that helps them understand the meaning of the word.

For example, if the word was "anticipation", you could suggest a student draw a roller coaster at its highest peak. Students should draw a simple picture that best symbolizes and represents the vocabulary word. The fourth box should contain a student-created meaningful sentence using the word. You can also instruct them to copy the sentence where the word is used (from the text) if you want them to infer meaning from context clues.

Implementing the Method

You may be thinking that it is impossible to implement this method, due to the large amounts of vocabulary you teach in your classroom. You do not have to assign students to use this technique on EVERY vocabulary word. Only have students use this method on three or four words per chapter list, and engage them in other means of vocabulary instruction with the rest of the list.

Using this method sparingly is important, because students will tire and create sloppy work if they are expected to create fifty four-squares for their list of fifty words. Their drawings and sentences will definitely become lack-luster by the seventh or eighth word! Use this for reinforcement and to shake up your traditional modes of teaching vocabulary!