K-12 Teaching and Learning From the UNC School of Education

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Learning outcomes

Students will:

  • become familiar with and the use of a thesaurus.
  • understand the concept of a synonym.
  • work cooperatively within groups.
  • increase vocabulary.
  • utilize a word bank/wall.
  • improve writing skills.

Teacher planning

Time required for lesson

2 hours


  • Thesauruses
  • Two sample papers, one with “Dead Words” and the same paper with the “Dead Words” replaced. These papers can be a student sample or created by the teacher.
  • list of Words Commonly Used in Students’ Writing or create a list of words from your own students’ writing
  • Laminated Dead Word List for student groups. Each group should have a different list of words.
  • Construction paper tombstones with the initials “RIP” written across the top and a “Dead Word” written in the middle (see example).
  • Colored word strips.
  • Magic markers.
  • Glue gun and glue sticks and/or masking tape.
  • Plenty of wall space.


  • Review by discussing what synonyms are and allow students to provide examples.
  • Introduce the concept of “Dead Words.” Ask students to give examples.
  • Introduce activity by reading the example of the paper using numerous “Dead Words” (see Dead Words Sample for an example). Ask students what they notice about the paper. Discuss.
  • Reread the same paper, replacing the “Dead Words” (The “Dead Words” should be replaced before beginning lesson.) with improved vocabulary. Ask students what differences they noticed. Discuss.
  • You may also wish to ask students which paper they would rather read and why?


Day 1

  1. Place students in groups of no more than 4 or 5 and distribute thesauruses.
  2. Give each group a laminated list of “Dead Words.” As a group, students should replace each “Dead Word” with 5 synonyms. (Teacher should check lists for accuracy.)

Day 2

  1. Before students arrive, arrange tombstones in various places around the room.
  2. Place students back in original groups.
  3. Return synonym lists.
  4. Give each group the necessary supplies (colored word strips and magic markers) for placing their synonyms on the colored word strips.
  5. When students finish writing synonyms on word strips, allow them to place the strips on the wall around the appropriate “Dead Word” tombstone. Teacher should monitor carefully making sure words are not duplicated (see example.)

Synonym Scavenger Hunt/Follow-up Activity

  1. Bring a stack of 20 to 30 narrative picture books to class.
  2. In small groups, have students search picture books for more synonyms the authors use for dead words.


Students will demonstrate:

  • visible use of improved vocabulary within writing samples.
  • vivid descriptions used in writing samples.

Supplemental information

I have attached a copy of common words I’ve found in my students’ writing samples. You are free to use this list, but I recommend you generate a list of your own by noticing “Dead Words” found in your students’ papers. Also attached you’ll find a copy of the handout I give each group. Photographs are attached to give you an idea of what the arrangement might look like on a wall.


In addition to having a “Dead Word” wall, duplicate the list of synonyms for students to keep in a notebook.

I generally do this activity before Halloween, but anytime is a good time to improve vocabulary and word choice.

  • Common Core State Standards
    • English Language Arts (2010)
      • Language

        • Grade 7
          • 7.L.3 Use knowledge of language and its conventions when writing, speaking, reading, or listening. 7.L.3.1 Choose language that expresses ideas precisely and concisely, recognizing and eliminating wordiness and redundancy.*
          • 7.L.4 Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases based on grade 7 reading and content, choosing flexibly from a range of strategies. 7.L.4.1 Use context (e.g., the overall meaning of a sentence or paragraph; a word’s...
          • 7.L.5 Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings. 7.L.5.1 Interpret figures of speech (e.g., literary, biblical, and mythological allusions) in context. 7.L.5.2 Use the relationship between particular...

North Carolina curriculum alignment

English Language Arts (2004)

Grade 7

  • Goal 6: The learner will apply conventions of application of grammar and language usage.
    • Objective 6.01: Model an understanding of conventional written and spoken expression by:
      • using a variety of sentences correctly, punctuating them properly, and avoiding fragments and run-ons.
      • using subject-verb agreement and verb tense that are appropriate for the meaning of the sentence.
      • applying the parts of speech to clarify language usage.
      • using pronouns correctly, including clear antecedents and correct case.
      • using phrases and clauses correctly, including proper punctuation (e.g., prepositional phrases, appositives, dependent and independent clauses).
      • determining the meaning of unfamiliar vocabulary words using context clues, a dictionary, a glossary, a thesaurus, and/or structural analysis (roots, prefixes, suffixes) of words.
      • extending vocabulary knowledge by learning and using new words.
      • determining when and where dialects and standard/nonstandard English usage are appropriate.
      • applying language conventions and usage during oral presentations.
      • choosing language that is precise, engaging, and well suited to the topic and audience.
      • experimenting with figurative language and speech patterns.