Stumbling block #4 – Limited writing vocabulary

by | Nov 23, 2009 | Struggling Writers, Teaching Homeschool Writing

Limited Writing Vocabulary | 10 Stumbling Blocks to Writing - Students can develop and hone vocabulary by using a thesaurus and word banks.

For the past several weeks, we’ve been looking at writing issues that plague students and their parents. Writing isn’t a one-size-fits-all subject, but certainly there are overarching principles that apply to many students and situations.

In this series, 10 Stumbling Blocks to Writing, I’ve been focusing on the most common writing hurdles that tend to trip up your children and offering simple and practical suggestions you can use right away. Let’s see what today’s topic has in store for us!

 Stumbling Block #4

Problem: Limited writing vocabulary that inhibits ideas and contributes to weak stories, essays, and reports.

Solution: Teach your student to develop and hone vocabulary by using a thesaurus and word banks.

A student who has a growing supply of words at her disposal learns to express herself just as she intends—using the right word at the right time. Not only that, she allows the reader to grasp subtle shades of description and meaning.

On the other hand, a limited vocabulary can cripple a child’s attempts to produce an interesting piece of writing. If he can’t express himself concretely, his stories or essays end up riddled with oft-repeated words and ho-hum vocabulary. From the comments I’ve read in previous “Stumbling Blocks” posts, this might very well be your child!

Here’s some welcome news—this problem has a relatively simple solution! Let’s take a look at some practical ways to boost your student’s writing vocabulary.

1. Start with a Good Thesaurus

Synonym FinderA thesaurus helps your student find fresh new words to replace tired or overused ones. It’s a necessary tool for every writer and should not be considered an option.

Our all-time favorite thesaurus—and the one our students used when we taught WriteShop classes—is The Synonym Finder. (My own dog-eared copy is now splitting at the seams!) Comprehensive yet easy to use, The Synonym Finder puts every other thesaurus to shame. As one mom put it:

“It’s HUGE. We got rid of all the other ones we had in the house (we got tired of not finding the words we were looking for)! A GREAT resource…. We highly recommend it.” –Patty K.

It’s so much fun to watch your kids begin to use new words. There’s nothing like seeing dazzling, jubilant, and thunderous begin to replace vague words like bright, happy, and loud. And your children will find that as their word choices expand, writing becomes more fun!

2. Choose Shorter Words

Teaching kids to use a thesaurus has its drawbacks, especially when they get carried away with the joy of discovering new words. In these enthusiastic moments, they sometimes end up with unwieldy words that weigh down their writing.

There will always be exceptions, but as a rule, long words are often more formal—even stuffy. On the other hand, short words tend to have force and directness. And as language gets more direct, clarity improves. It’s interesting to note that short, familiar words—typically words with fewer syllables—are more easily understood than their longer counterparts. For example:

  • grit vs. indomitability
  • biased vs. opinionated
  • sharp vs. perceptive
  • forlorn vs. dispirited
  • clutter vs. disarrangement

This doesn’t mean students should never use longer words! On the contrary, it’s great to see their vocabulary blossom. But eagerness to discover new words can result in sentences strung together by too much cumbersome vocabulary. Bottom line: Teach, model, and encourage your children to use more challenging words, but wisely!

3. Use Word Banks

Another excellent source of new vocabulary, word banks provide specific lists of words by category or topic, such as holidays or seasons. When a student is tempted to reuse a familiar word because he can’t think of any others, a word list can remind him of alternative words he already knows but can’t quite reel in from the edges of his mind. It can also provide a wealth of words that will spark ideas in a reluctant writer’s mind. That’s why we’ve include word lists in our WriteShop student books—lists such as textures, colors, and emotions.

So…now that you’ve got some ideas for bolstering vocabulary, get yourself a Synonym Finder, gather a few word banks, and start having fun with words!

Don’t miss next week’s Stumbling Block: Perfectionism. It’s a major hurdle for writers of all ages!

2009 © Kim Kautzer. All rights reserved.

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When looking for a writing curriculum, seek out a program that purposefully teaches children to make stronger word choices. WriteShop Primary helps K-3rd graders develop a meaningful writing vocabulary. For older students, you’ll find that WriteShop I and II include 17 exhaustive word banks that help equip and inspire successful writers!


  1. Shanice White

    so i am doing a course in college called Improve Methods in Teaching and Assessing Writing in Secondary Schools and this helped me…. thank you kim.

    • Kim Kautzer

      Wonderful, Shanice! I’m so glad the article was useful to you. Thanks for letting me know!

  2. Amy

    I’m anxious to find out what your word bank is! We use something we call a word bank for missed spelling words 🙂 I’m sure my kids would enjoy your type of word bank better than the one in current use 😉 Also, I’m looking at ordering the Synonym Finder… I can’t wait to have look at it!

    Amy in Peru

    • Kim

      In WriteShop Primary (Books B and C), we do have spelling word banks called Super Spellers! Like yours, they’re created from the children’s misspelled words. It’s one of many ways to use word lists/banks.

      And you will adore your new Synonym Finder!

  3. Kim

    Isn’t the Synonym Finder fabulous, Diane? It’s such a great tool for writers of all ages, but it’s especially helpful for our teens who need help developing a more mature writing vocabulary. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Diane

    I purchased the synonym finder and love it! It has also helped me to stretch my thinking. Using word banks have also helped my older son to have a larger vocabulary to draw from for his writing.

  5. Kim

    You’re welcome!

  6. Tammy

    Thank you for this mini seminar. It has been the answer I needed to get my struggling writers going again.

  7. Diane Allen

    I LOVE the word banks with Write Shop. They do help my daughter find new words to use.

    I copied them and put then in sheet protectors which I bound in a flexible binder. This serves as a ‘reference’ for writing projects. She can take only the papers out of the larger notebook she needs to work on in a week and place them in this binder as well. That way there is one thin “book” we need for writing and it can be easily transported if we have to take school on the road.

    Diane Allen

  8. Isabelle aka Canadianladybug

    Last year I discovered a little book published at Scholastic that has reproducible word lists for helping students choose just-right words to strengthen their writing. The title is BANISH BORING WORDS! by Leilen Shelton and is geared for students grades 4-8.

    I admit that I use it sometimes… *grin*

    While going to a book fair last year, I discovered something similar for French – Dictionnaire de l’écrivain en herbe by Jacques Beauchesne at Guérin. (just in case someone would be interested). I know this is on my wish list for next year!


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