Synonym Triplets

A “Touching the Spirit” Culture-Centered Teaching Strategy Intensified Teaching to Accelerate the Understanding and Memorization of a Significant Number of Synonyms to Enhance Students’ Academic Speaking and Writing Vocabulary

Vocabulary, Language, and Writing Development

1. Heightens students’ understanding of synonymy.

2. Provides accelerated vocabulary building.

3. Helps students become aware of shades of meaning and subtle differences among words.

4. Provides practice in the use of a book and computer thesaurus.

5. Helps develop the habit of reflecting on their choice of words to make their writing and speech more interesting and more precise.

Rhythm, Recitation, Repetition, Expectations of Excellence, Insistence on Working Toward
Mastery, Intensive Direct Instruction and Practice


1. Ideally, all students would have:

a. some understanding of the potential power of the spoken and written word as a result of exposure to great writers and speakers and experience with analysis of their use of language.

b. been inspired to work toward excellence in vocabulary knowledge by reading and hearing the use of words by highly effective speakers and writers of their own cultural heritage—including some of the most talented youth wordsmiths of popular culture.

2. See below for activities designed for building background knowledge related to the concept of synonymic relationships as a prerequisite to this “Synonym Triplets” instructional strategy.


1. Building Background Knowledge

a. Prior to the use of this strategy, build on students’ background knowledge related to synonyms to engage them in discussion with abundant examples. e.g. After introducing the concept of synonymy with some examples and discussion, the teacher leads students in some activities that make examples come alive and connect with students’ prior knowledge.

“O.K. , now act this out at your desks: ‘You’re sleepy’. (students dramatize being sleepy). ‘You’re drowsy’, (they dramatize being drowsy). ‘O.K., now you can hardly stay awake.’ (They act this out).

The discussion of synonyms continues and this leads to other examples. “ O.K. If I want to describe how my dog is very active. What other words could I use besides ‘very active’?”

Students suggest words such as “playful”, “lively”, “energetic”, “frisky”, “He has a lot of spunk”. etc. A discussion might ensue as to whether a suggested word ”happy” was truly a synonym for “very active”.This type of discussion with examples takes place for a few minutes for several days.

b. After students understand the concept, lead them in an oral recitation of an explanatory statement for several days until the recitation is memorized.

For example:

“A synonym is a word that means the same or almost the same as another word. The words postpone, delay, and procrastinate are synonyms. Synonyms are important for us to learn because they help us find ju-u-u-st the right word when we are expressing our thoughts in our speech or in our writing.

A thesaurus is a reference tool for identifying synonyms. We can look up synonyms in a thesaurus in book form and we can find synonyms using the thesaurus on our computers. Our goal is to study and become expert synonymists!”

2. Identifying Words

Identify words from trade books and classroom texts whose meanings students need to master. Choose words that are appropriate for the study of synonyms and ones that you would want students to use in their speech and writing. For two of the words in each triplet, select grade level and above grade level words. Don’t limit the list to words that students already know or can already read. We want to quickly expand students’ oral as well as written and reading vocabulary.

(Can’t underperforming kindergarteners for example, whose learning we want to accelerate learn and understand the synonyms: “help, aid, assist” or “important, significant, valuable” and use them in their speech just as many kindergarten children of college educated parents do– coming to school having heard these synonyms many times over the years? We aren’t necessarily teaching them to read or write these words at this time.)

3. Deciding on the Synonyms

Write two synonyms for each of the words, arranging them in an order that lends itself to memorable rhythmic recitation. One of the words should be a word familiar to most students. This word anchors the discussion of the meanings of all three words. See examples below. (As a resource, The Reading Teachers Book of Lists has 3 pages of synonym in groups of three)

4. Creating a Chart

Create a chart of eight sets of synonym triplets. Leave a small space on the left of the triplet for one picture that can represent all three words. Arrange the words in an order that lends itself to memorable rhythmic recitation.

5. Choosing Definitions and Sentences

Quickly look up a short definition and explanatory sentence for each synonym. It took only two minutes to pull up these three definitions from a computer thesaurus. I tried to think of sentences that would help students form a mental picture and aid in learning and remembering. Calm means a situation of complete peace and quiet, with no noise, trouble, or anxiety. Our classroom was so-o-o calm during “Drop Everything And Read” time. ( or “DEAR” time) Serene means calm and not troubled by worry, stress or disturbance. This picture shows a man who is very sere-e-e-n. Peaceful means quiet and calm—serene and untroubled in the mind. I had a very peaceful rest lying on the deserted beach.

6. Using the Definitions and Sentences

Use these definitions and sentences as references when teaching and discussing the shades ofmeaning for each of the words. Students are not asked to memorize these at this time.



1. The use of rhythm, recitation, and repetition as cultural principles to gain students’ attention, aid memory, and reveal patterns in language.

2. The brain continually seeks patterns.

3. Utilizing research in culture and cognition in the acceleration of learning.


1. Depending on the age of the students, the use of a book and computer thesaurus should definitely be included in the extension activities.

2. Students continually identify appropriate words in their texts and create synonym triplets.

3. Students continually add to the charted class lists and learn to lead lessons on mastery of these. Students are required to use these words in their speech and writing.

4. Students prepare large index cards for independent study of the synonym triplets introduced. On one side of a card the triplet is written. On the other side only one of the three words is written. Students quiz each other holding a card with only one word showing. Their partner has to say the other two words that make up the triplet studied.

5. Students create drawings –one on a card. On the back side of the card is a synonym triplet. Partners have to guess the triplet after viewing the picture.

6. Students can create additional activities to use in independent work study of synonyms.