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This strategy enables students to “zero-in” on unique and/or troublesome vocabulary words in a specialized text or any content area.  It is designed to clarify a single word or phrase using the student’s vocabulary in order to make meaning.  This clarification process identifies the category to which the word might fit as well as any attributes which may be used to describe it.  Utilizing these techniques to incorporate vocabulary they already know students will be able to make connections which will enable them to retrieve and use high level vocabulary.  Research has shown that the use of an illustration, cartoon or diagram further solidifies comprehension for students. 


To compile a “personal dictionary” in a binder or 2-pocket folder with prongs, punch holes in the graphic organizers after completion and file them alphabetically.  This can be a useful way to build higher level vocabulary if all Defining Format pages from all subject areas are filed in the same location.

If teachers work as a team, they might choose to duplicate forms for each subject on separate colors.  (i.e.: Reading/Literature—Blue paper, Math—Pink paper, Science/Health—Green paper, Social Studies/Civics—Yellow paper)


  • By utilizing a chart-sized graphic organizer (or smart board) and working as a class or sharing results with classmates, students will be engaged and interact with each other. 
  • All of these are key elements in retrieval, comprehension, and learning as documented by brain research.  
  • The use of BIG IDEAS (Essential Questions) helps students to focus and make connections. 
  • Illustrations generated by students to solidify their definition aid with retrieval and retention.
  • Aids students to collect and organize vocabulary for easy retrieval.

Assessment & Differentiation

Pre-Assessment:  In order to make the lessons we teach appropriate, we must measure the prior knowledge each student has of the content vocabulary being studied.  The Defining Format Strategy and graphic organizer are uniquely equipped to do this because of the use of the student’s personal vocabulary to generate the definition (i.e, higher level vocabulary for attributes would indicate a more in-depth understanding).

Formative assessment:  It is important to measure and monitor each student’s comprehension and application of new material on a daily basis.  Use of Defining Format allows this assessment without requiring a formal quiz or test.

Teachers have the opportunity for formative assessment of individual students by observing the use and clarification of the new higher level vocabulary during daily classtime.

Summative assessment is a chosen means of measuring students’ comprehension of new material.  To assess student comprehension with the material studied, teachers will need to see evidence that the student(s) are able to use this vocabulary in a meaningful way.  Therefore teachers will need to choose a written product which will utilize or implement one or more of the new vocabulary words.


The need for differentiation may be readily apparent from student responses to this strategy. 

Some students may be accommodated by allowing the use of simpler words for attributes. 

Other students may need to be assigned different words to define in order to differentiate. 

Because the unit of study will focus on one topic, this activity will allow students of any ability level to work with other classmates or other ability level peers in a collaborative manner, without singling out individual abilities. 

Example:  A unit on “The Farm” may have some students defining “cow” or “chicken” while other students may be working with “domestic animals.”

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