What the heck is lexicology?

Lexicology is the study of words, focusing on their definitions, origins, and usage. The word itself, lexicology, comes from the Greek lexis, meaning “word”, and –ology, a suffix meaning “the study of”. Closely related is the word lexicon, which refers to the vocabulary of a person or a language as a whole, and that’s what we focus on here: building vocabulary. In CASP’s Lexicology ELC we play games and participate in activities that broaden the vocabularies of the students, enabling them to express themselves and interpret their world with an ever-increasing body of words. We pay particular attention to the so-called “Tier 2” words, high-frequency words that occur across a variety of contexts. Above all, we try to have fun, lifting the words off the dictionary page to find meaningful, relevant connections to everyday life. With words we communicate, and with communication we endeavor to understand one another—and be understood in turn.

What exactly does one do in the Lexicology ELC?

Listed here are the activities we’ve undertaken so far, as well as lessons to come.

1. Acrostics

An acrostic is a series of lines or verses in which a letter from each line (usually the first letter), when taken from top to bottom, spells out a word or phrase. The students write acrostics using their name as the vertical template, and for each letter they are encouraged to use a self-describing phrase or adjective. In theory, the acrostics serve as nametags revealing more than merely the names of their creators—they should become biographical poems of a sort. In practice, however, silliness tends to prevail, and the kids have fun exaggerating certain aspects of their personalities (or, in some cases, inventing traits out of whole cloth).

2. Mad-Libs

First, an explanation of the name: The term “mad-lib” is a twist on “ad-lib”, which today is used to describe an act of spontaneous improvisation, as in music or acting. One can also ad lib (used as a verb). It’s short for ad libitum, which in Latin translates to “at one’s pleasure”. Mad-libs are word games revolving around sentence templates, where various parts of each sentence (such as verbs, nouns, and adjectives) are left blank to the student, open to liberal interpretation and comedic ingenuity. Most mad-libs run for about a paragraph or so, and are usually theme-based. Kids quickly grasp the concept of making each mad-lib make sense—that is, reading contextual clues, and choosing words accordingly—but the real fun begins when they cut loose from convention, concocting the wildest, most implausible scenarios out of a seemingly ordinary string of sentences.

3. Idiom-agery

Idiomatic expressions are ones in which the meanings are not predictable from the constituent parts, such as in, “Hit the hay” (meaning go to bed), or “Let the cat out of the bag” (to divulge a secret), or “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” (essentially, one sure thing is better than two speculative, and therefore risky, things). Also referred to as “figures of speech” or “speaking figuratively” (rather than literally), idioms are thrown around blithely in conversation, and as result many have become cliché, or stale from overuse. Still, idioms are handy expressions when used wisely, and many of them employ evocative language that lends well to pictorial interpretation. In Idiom-agery, students pick their favorite idioms and illustrate the expression without using words, and afterward the group tries to identify each idiom based on the pictures created.

4. Lights, Camera, Action Words!

This is a variation of charades, a team-based game where members of each team pantomime, or wordlessly act out clues, in order to have their teammates correctly guess a word or phrase. The name of the game comes from the French charr and charrad, which translate to “chatter” and “entertainment”, respectively. In Lights, Camera, Action Words!, students play charades with verbs, the so-called “action” words that describe changes of state, or relationships between things, and can also be inflected to convey tense, aspect, voice, or mood. Many verbs describe action, and thus are easy to pantomime—think run and jump—but here the students (who work in pantomiming pairs) are given more abstract, Tier 2-style words, such as achieve and equate, to act out for their group, and these require a bit more creativity to decipher.

5. Synonym-biosis

Words with similar meanings are known as synonyms, derived from the Greek synonymon: literally, “word having the same sense as another.” Similar-sounding is the word symbiosis (also Greek), which describes the living together of two or more different organisms. Put the two together, use a teensy bit of imagination, and the result is a team-based game where players try to anticipate their teammates’ thoughts by coming up with matching synonyms. In Synonym-biosis the teacher reads a list of vocabulary words one by one, and for each word the students have 30 seconds to silently write down as many synonyms as they can think of. For each synonym a student shares with his or her teammates, that team receives one point. For each synonym a student shares with the teacher’s “bonus list” (which comprises three “bonus” synonyms for each vocabulary word), that team receives five points. (Example: The bonus words for illustrate are depict, portray, and illuminate.) So the teams try to think as one, and for the especially word-savvy there are tie-breakers galore.

6. Riddled with Clues

A riddle is a statement designed to challenge the mind toward guessing an answer—essentially, a puzzle crafted from words. An ancient form of poetry that often employs double meanings, word play, and metaphor, most riddles pose a question that contains an apparent contradiction or impossibility, and varying degrees of logical reasoning are required to solve them. In this activity, students will be challenged to write their own riddles—and if merely solving some riddles is difficult, then creating a good one takes some cleverness, indeed. To circumscribe the activity a bit, the kids will keep their riddle-writing animal-themed.

Some tips we discussed:
1. First, decide the answer—simpler is better
2. Make a list of the characteristics that make the answer unique, or at least easily identifiable
3. Choose a couple of these characteristics—ones that do not appear too obvious—to include in the riddle. (For example, a telltale trait of the male lion is its mane. A not-so-obvious characteristic might be that a group of lions is called a “pride”.)
4. Look for items that could metaphorically be applied to humans
5. Imagine that the answer to the riddle is an animal telling you about itself. What are its talents? How does it feel? (A gross anthropomorphization, but useful in riddle-writing.) Write a description that is at least three sentences long.
6. Write the riddle from the perspective of said animal

Some examples I shared:
“I have no hands but I like to climb trees. I’ve got no fingers but I love to squeeze. I smell with my tongue and I never chew my food. What am I?” (Answer: boa constrictor.)
“I have one bill but it’s not worth money. I fly in a gaggle but it’s not very funny. I have no horn but I honk like a Jeep. What am I?” (A goose.)


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