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Common Core Standards: ELA

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Language

Language CCRA.L.4

Vocabulary Acquisition and Use

4. Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases by using context clues, analyzing meaningful word parts, and consulting general and specialized reference materials, as appropriate.

Toddlers and young children learn vocabulary without thinking about it—their brains simply absorb new words and new meanings for familiar words with little to no effort on their part. Would that we all were so lucky!

As humans age, we lose the sponge-like ability to soak up new words and meanings—even though, in a globalized world, we need those skills more than ever. Luckily, we never completely lose the ability to learn vocabulary.

Students preparing for college and/or a career should practice the skills they’ll need to decipher the forest of new words they’ll inevitably encounter. Specifically, the Anchor Standards recommend focusing on the following skills:

Understanding words in context. The sentence or paragraph a new word lives in can provide plenty of information about what it means. Often, the sentence alone tells the reader enough to give him a good shot at guessing what the word means. Context is especially important when a single word has multiple meanings.

For instance, the word “glass” may mean a container for a beverage, a flat pane of material used in a window or mirror, or the substance from which both of these are made. A sentence like “I raised my glass to toast their happy marriage,” however, immediately brings to mind the drink-holder type of “glass,” not the used-in-windows type of “glass.” (Similarly, “toast” in this context brings to mind a type of speech, not a piece of cooked bread.)

Examining word parts. English may read like it picks the pockets of other languages for spare vocabulary, but many English words, especially those used in technical or professional fields, use recognizable word parts that give a clear view of what the word means. Perhaps the best-known example is the suffix “-ology,” which means “the study of.”

Using reference materials. When all else fails, look it up! Most students preparing for college or a career are familiar with the basic reference trio of dictionary/thesaurus/encyclopedia, but most specialties have their own specific reference materials along with the tried-and-true favorites.

P.S. If your students need to brush up on their spelling and grammar, send 'em over to our Grammar Learning Guides so they can hone their skills before conquering the Common Core.

Example 1

Sample Activities for Use in Class

Reading Outside Your Sphere: This activity can be done in an hour, or it can serve as an ongoing semester project. Students will need access to magazines, books, and other reading materials. For a one-day assignment, the school library may suffice; for an entire semester, you may want to have students subscribe to a magazine, or use resources at a local public or university library, if available.

Assign, or have each student choose, a topic or area of study about which the student knows little to nothing. More than one student may be assigned to each topic, if necessary. For the duration of the assignment, have the students read a magazine, newsletter, book, or other publication in their unknown topic. As they encounter words they don’t know, students should write down:

1. The word;
2. The sentence the word appears in;
3. Their best guess as to what the word means and what they base that guess on - the context, a definition or example given in the text, the parts of the word, etc. (one or two sentences will suffice); and
4. What the word actually means and where they learned that information (dictionary, website, asking a professional in the field, etc.)

Reading topics they know nothing about will not only expose students to vocabulary they’ve never seen before, but also challenges them to decide what resources are best for finding out.

Vocabulary Relay

For this activity, you’ll need a stack of general and specialized reference materials and a stack of cards containing vocabulary words, phrases and concepts that might be found in these reference works. For instance, if your pile of reference materials contains a medical dictionary and a copy of Gray’s Anatomy, your cards should include a few medical terms, such as the technical name for certain organs, diseases, or medical procedures.

Divide the class into two or more teams of four to seven students each. Put the stack of reference materials on a table at the front of the room, and divide the cards into one stack per team and set them at the front of the room either with the reference materials or on their own table. (For scoring purposes, it may be easier to color-code the cards for each team.) Students should line up in single-file lines, one per team, facing the reference materials and stacks of cards.

On “go!” (or some similar signal to begin), the first student in each line will race to the front of the room and grab the top card off her team’s stack. The student reads the card, then has to decide as quickly as possible which reference materials are most likely to have the definition of the word, phrase or concept on the card. The student should go through the reference material(s) until she finds the definition, then mark that page in the book with her card and race to the back of her team’s line, at which point the second student on the team runs forward and does the same thing. Once everyone on the team has stuck a card in a book, the entire team should raise its hands.

A team has “won” if all its cards bookmark a page that defines the word on the card. Read the words and the definitions out loud, or have each student read his or hers out loud.

Quiz 1 Questions

Here's an example of a quiz that could be used to test this standard.

  1. To her dismay, her new work uniform consisted of an aubergine blouse and matching pants, with a violet hat that was several shades lighter than the clothes. In the above sentence, the underlined word most likely means:

    Correct Answer:

    purple

    Answer Explanation:

    • (a) - This is the literal translation of “aubergine” from the French; in English, the word “aubergine” usually refers to a deep color similar to the shade of an eggplant, making (e) the best answer.
    • (e) - The “violet” hat is several shades lighter than the clothes, so the clothes must be a deep purple color. *correct answer

  2. The crowd cheered as the team’s defense worked together to block another field goal attempt by the opposing team. In the above sentence, which word or phrase most strongly indicates the underlined word should be pronounced “DEE-fense” and not “de-FENSE”?

    Correct Answer:

    “team’s,” “block,” and “field goal”

    Answer Explanation:

    • (a) - The crowd in a courtroom might cheer too, but in that context, the word would almost certainly be pronounced “de-FENSE” as in “defense attorney.”
    • (b) - These words indicate the context is a sporting event, in which the word is generally pronounced “DEE-fense.” *correct answer
    • (d) - Suffers from the same defect as (a)

  3. Questions 3 and 4 refer to the following sentence: “People who live in glass houses built on an active volcano should not throw igneous stones.”

    Based on the context in the sentence, igneous stones MOST LIKELY come from which kind of natural feature?

    Correct Answer:

    Volcanoes

    Answer Explanation:

    The houses are built on th slope of a volcano, so the rocks are most likely produced by the volcano - the only one of the five answers indicated in the sentence.


  4. If you didn’t know the definition of “igneous,” which of the following reference books would MOST likely tell you what the word means?

    Correct Answer:

    Dictionary of Geology

    Answer Explanation:

    a dictionary provides word definitions, and geologists deal with rocks and their sources.


  5. After learning that all three of their children suffered from ailurophobia, Mr. and Mrs. Stevenson decided to adopt a dog. Based on the context and examining the parts of the word, “ailurophobia” MOST likely means:

    Correct Answer:

    fear of cats

    Answer Explanation:

    • (a) - the prefix “ailuro-” is unusual, but “-phobia” refers to fear, and a family that decides on a dog probably ruled out getting a cat, making (a) the best answer
    • (d) - a dog wouldn’t protect the three Stevenson kids from their fear of one another.

  6. You can ask if Jennie wants to go bowling, but she’s such a milquetoast she’ll probably just go along with whatever you want to do tonight. In this sentence, the underlined word most likely means:

    Correct Answer:

    pushover

    Answer Explanation:

    A “milquetoast” is usually weak-willed; Jennie is a pushover here because she’ll cave to whatever her friends want instead of standing up for her own preferences.


  7. Questions 7 and 8 refer to the following sentence: Akiko and Jay went to the museum to see the traveling Mona Lisa exhibit, but the phalanx of security guards in the gallery made it impossible to see the painting.

    If you wanted to learn the meaning of the underlined word, the MOST helpful tool is probably:

    Correct Answer:

    an English-language dictionary

    Answer Explanation:

    “phalanx” is a standard English word, and if you want the meaning of a word, a dictionary is most likely to provide it


  8. Suppose that you don’t have any tools or references that might tell you what the underlined word means. Based on the context of the sentence, the underlined word most likely means:

    Correct Answer:

    a group of people standing close together, like soldiers

    Answer Explanation:

    “Phalanx” comes from Greek, where it referred to soldiers in a specific formation. Today, it commonly refers to any group of people who have “closed ranks” for a united purpose.


  9. Bad news: your student advisor has just told you that your grades are too low to get you into medical school. Instead, he recommends a related field called biopharmacology. What does the prefix “bio-” tell you about this field?

    Correct Answer:

    it has to do with living things

    Answer Explanation:

    The prefix “bio-” refers to living things, as in “biology,” the study of living things like plants and animals


  10. Now that you’ve decided not to go to medical school, your top three career choices are biologist, zoologist, and anthropologist. The suffix “-ologist” means that these three careers all have what in common?

    Correct Answer:

    they all involve the study of something

    Answer Explanation:

    “-ology” is a Greek prefix meaning “the study of.”


Quiz 2 Questions

Here's an example of a quiz that could be used to test this standard.

  1. Today’s paper features the front-page headline “Local Astronomer Discovers New O-Type.” Without picking up the paper, you can guess an “O-Type” is most likely a kind of:

    Correct Answer:

    star

    Answer Explanation:

    • (c) - these are studied by astrologers, not astronomers, making (d) the better answer
    • (d) - astronomers study stars and other outer-space objects, so anything an astronomer discovers is likely to fall into this category *correct answer

  2. If a “gnostic” is someone who claims to know or understand the spiritual world, than an “agnostic” is most likely someone who:

    Correct Answer:

    questions or admits not knowing if a spiritual world exists

    Answer Explanation:

    • (c) - The prefix “a-” means “without,” so an agnostic would be “without knowing.” *correct answer
    • (e) - Many scientists are agnostic, but not all agnostic people are scientists, making (c) the better answer.

  3. Tyler is standing in line to buy a concert ticket. There are 501 people in line, but only 500 tickets. The ticket office will only sell one ticket to each person. If Tyler is the penultimate person in line, he most likely feels:

    Correct Answer:

    Happy that he gets to buy the 500th ticket.

    Answer Explanation:

    “Penultimate” means “next to last,” so if Tyler is the penultimate person in a line of 501 people, that makes him person 500 - and buyer of the last concert ticket.


  4. A book review in your local paper has just covered a new book of poetry. The reviewer writes that he was especially impressed with the poet’s use of metonymy and onomatopoeia. If you want to know the meaning of these words, which of the following resources would be the LEAST helpful?

    Correct Answer:

    a telephone directory

    Answer Explanation:

    not usually a good source for poetry terms, unless you plan to call the author


  5. Questions 5 - 7 refer to the following scene: You arrive home after work one day to find that your roommate has left a note on the fridge. It says, “Tasha called. Having a blepharoplasty Tuesday 10 am. Can you drive her to surgery center?”

    From the note, you deduce that a “blepharoplasty” is some kind of surgery. Since the word contains the suffix “-plasty,” which of the following types of surgery is a “blepharoplasty” MOST likely to be?

    Correct Answer:

    plastic surgery

    Answer Explanation:

    “-plasty” sounds like “plastic,” which should guide the reader to the thought of plastic surgery.


  6. If the suffix “-plasty” refers to the type of surgery, what does the prefix “blepharo-” MOST likely refer to?

    Correct Answer:

    a body part

    Answer Explanation:

    most surgical procedures are referred to by names that combine the Latin or Greek term for the body part being operated on with the term for the type of procedure involved. A “blepharoplasty” is plastic surgery on the eyelid. If students are confused, explain that, since they know “-plasty” probably means “a type of surgery,” they should try connecting the phrase “a type of surgery on” to each of the five options. “A type of surgery on a medication” makes no sense, but “a type of surgery on a body part” does.


  7. Based on your answer to Question 6, you’ll most likely find the definition of the prefix “blepharo-” by consulting which of the following?

    Correct Answer:

    an anatomy textbook

    Answer Explanation:

    Anatomy is the study of body parts. It usually involves the tedious memorization of Latin and Greek body-part names, so it is the most likely of the five choices to define a prefix that relates to a human body part.


  8. I refused to stop correcting Celia’s grammar, even though I knew it annoyed her. Finally, she yelled, “Stop correcting everything I say, you insufferable pedant!” Assuming Celia used the word correctly, “pedant” most likely means:

    Correct Answer:

    someone who insists on getting the details right, no matter how tiresome it makes them

    Answer Explanation:

    “Pedant” originally meant “scholar,” but today it’s only used for those scholars who refuse to let any comment go by without making sure its grammar and content are exactly correct, no matter how much it annoys the pedant’s friends.


  9. Questions 9 and 10 refer to the following sentence: “Just when it looked like the terrorists would blow up the nuclear bomb in the middle of New York and nobody could stop them, the movie revealed a deus ex machina in the form of an angel who appeared to the head of the terrorist cell and convinced him to change his ways.”

    The phrase “deus ex machina” is phrase that literally means what?

    Correct Answer:

    “god in the machine”

    Answer Explanation:

    “deus” means “god,” “ex” means “in,” and “machina” means pretty much exactly what it sounds like - “machine.”


  10. In the sentence above, the phrase “deus ex machina” refers to:

    Correct Answer:

    The arrival of a character or event whose mere presence sets everything right so that the book can end happily ever after.

    Answer Explanation:

    (a) - He might do this as a result of a deus ex machina, but the device itself refers to the ancient theatrical habit of sending in a deity to magically fix everything so that the play can end happily ever after, which is what happens in the book described above, making (b) the better answer.


Aligned Resources

More standards from College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Language - Language

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