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Synonyms for said. How can you get children to use better verbs for said?

Updated on May 5, 2014

Creating depth to a character

This is a very simple idea but I think it is so effective that I wanted to share it. The idea behind this is to give the students a visual reference behind the words they are using.

I noticed early on in my teaching career that students tended to use words that they know were good even if they didn't know what they meant or even if it was in the correct context. I also noticed that a lot of students tended to use the word said a lot because this was an easy option (plus something that is used in a lot of their reading books which I don't like). Anyway they don't know why they should use better words unless this is explained to them.

This could be shown by giving the students some simple speech sentences:

"I worked really hard today Mr Jones," Fred said.

"I worked really hard today Mr Jones," Fred smiled.

"I worked really hard today Mr Jones," stared Fred.

"I worked really hard today Mr Jones," cried Fred.

If you show each one of these in turn and then get a good reader to read them out showing what emotions they are experiencing when saying it then it will show others that a simple word has great effect in their writing. Obviously you will have to talk further about what effect the verb has and how they would say it because of how they are feeling.

It is important to get across that when writing, the reader needs to get to know the characters, whether they like that person or not. Good guys need to be likable but bad guys need to be, well bad! If they use simple verbs to show how people are feeling, or how they react to a situation then it makes it a lot easier for the reader to do that.

Adverbs added to this sentence can help the idea of good guy/bad guy too.

Then talk about how you know what people are feeling? (Talk about their facial expressions and how they say things)

The idea

Said is a non-descriptive verb which does not help the reader one little bit. Students need to recognise this. You have three choices to improve their writing from here:

  1. They can either add a adverb - ... the little girl said quietly.
  2. The second is to use a better word for said - laughed, whimpered, cried etc.
  3. The third option is to use the two first options together - laughed quietly.

A great way to do this is to use smiles to help the children recognise the similarities with the words. It also helps them to develop the idea of a characters emotions are related to how they say things - this will in turn relate to their writing and creating deeper characters.

How does it work?

The idea is simple:

  • the students are given a number of smiles to work with.
  • they are then asked to find as many synonyms for said, that would match the expression or feeling the smile is representing, as they can. This can be done using computers or by using a theasurus (depending on the childrens ability - using the theasurus on word the work is done for them if they are to use a paper theasurus they must know their alphabet.)
  • They can then write down these synonyms for said underneath the smiley and keep this for future reference.
  • You could even make a class display for this work and encourage the children to get out of their seats to use it when they are stuck.

1: Someone who is happy/laughing









(Just a few examples)

2: Someone who is angry









(A few more ideas)

3: Someone who is frightened






4: Someone who is hurt








5: Someone who is shy, or unsure







And I hope you get the idea.

I tended to start this lesson off by placing the smiles on the board and ask students to say how they are feeling. Using a smart board I then scribed their ideas down next to the pictures. Once I had gone through a few and the students have realised that we are looking at feelings then I work back to the original and see how we can turn these words into verbs so they can be used instead of said. Students do find this hard, especially the younger ones who are first learning about speech. So I model the first few for them by placing them in a sentence using speech.

There are a few ideas of what you can do next:

  1. What I did with my year 3 class is split an A4 size piece of paper into six sections. Each section was then split further into two sections - one with a picture of a smiley, the second with a single word which relates to how that smiley was looking/feeling and what could be used as a better verb for said. The children then had to use a theasurus to find other words they could use which have the same meaning. This was then stuck into their books to look back on during any story writing.
  2. Or you could get the students to work in groups. This is especially good if you have a class where they don't work together quiet well yet so need more encouragement. (The students who do not work in a group at all well can work alongside yourself so you can model the behaviour they need to exhibit in order to complete a task like this. Also model the language they need to get along and persuasive language to get what they want instead of the general orders or nasty comments young children can give to try to get what they want.) Each group can be given the same sheet - which is blown up to A3 size. They then have a competion between the groups to find at least five different words which can be used instead of said. The way I set this competition up is to have a grid drawn on the board with a group name at the top. A team leader is picked who is the only one who can move from the group. It is his/her job to go to the board when the group has finished and then sign their name in the square. (Each smiley should be placed with a number so they know which one to sign when it is complete.) The winning group get rewarded somehow. Once the groups have completed their worksheet for this, it can be displayed somewhere near their table. If this is not possible then you can complete a class synonyms for said display as each group can call out their favourites they want to include on it and then these words, along with the same smileys, can be displayed on the wall somewhere for students to use in future writing excercises involving speech. I would suggest a photocopied version of their group's work is also placed in their books for future reference too.
  3. Another idea is to have lots of smileys around the room on desks. Next to each should be a few whiteboard pens and sugar paper, with the picture in the middle. The idea here is once the students leave the carpet they are to go around the room and write down as many different synonyms as they can find within five minutes on the picture they are looking at. Once the five minutes is up then they move onto the next. It will become harder and harder for students to find words to write down once they move on so make sure they know that they must read all the different synonyms first so they can steal/magpie them for their work in the future. This does create an instant display too as they can be stuck straight onto the wall and this is the students work instead of your own like the other ideas.
  4. And never forget the bonus of giving this for homework. If I were to do this, I would send home a second sheet of paper which explains what I want from the child so they and their parents know what to do. I would explain that they are looking for better words than said, I would mention how to use the internet or the office program like word, BUT I would also mention how important the use of a theasurus is to their school work - as well as a note on how to use it in case they didn't know themselves. I am a real believer that parents should help a child with their homework so they know what they are learning at school and also that the child is getting extra input into their education. A child that gets help at home doesn't half achieve a lot more than a child who gets nothing and although you have to feel sorry for them those children must know that it is important to do their homework so sanctions must be dished out for those who do not do it.

Ideas for student discussion

When walking around and checking on the work of the students, certain high level questions should be asked to gain knowledge of students learning - AFL is an important part of any teachers lesson and should be used to great effect. To ask simple closed questions are not good enough and will not extend a child's learning. So here are a few ideas to help you:

  • What do you notice about all these words you have found?
  • If I was feeling ______ , why would I say something like ______ ?
  • If I was angry, would that make me a bad person? Why not?
  • How do you know if someone was a nasty person or just in a bad mood because something bad had happenede to them?

For the lower ability or younger ages you could ask questions like:

  • If I was feeling angry/happy how would I be speaking?
  • Does ______ mean your more angry/happy than if I spoke like ______?
  • Which words would you use for a bad/good guy when writing? Why?
  • Which words do you like best that you could steal/magpie for your writing?

And I'm sure you can think of many more examples.

And the last bit from me!

You will of course have to make your own worksheet for this as I haven't found a way to include it on here yet but hopefully from the pictures above you can see what they students will achieve from this.

I have used this lesson plan plenty of times and then all year you can ask how a character is feeling at the time of the story - the chidren know that they should use a better word for said in their work - the higher ability should be able to push themselves forward with this kind of questioning and they should produce believable characters.

It is such an easy way for children to uplevel their work. Using the smiles too help the children to visualise their writing in a fun way.


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