Teach Vocabulary with Analogies

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First things first, what is an analogy?

If you’re not sure what a verbal (aka word) analogy is, you’re certainly not alone. Verbal analogies are assessment items designed to evaluate both an individual’s vocabulary as well as the individual’s ability to analyze the relationships between words. Analogies were a longtime staple on college entrance exams, though they’re (at least for now) no longer included on the SAT. Here’s what they look like. I bet you’ll remember doing them when you see the format.

analogy format graphic
Read #1 as “Up is to Down as On is to Off.” Read #2 as “Giddy is to Happy as Exhausted is to Tired.”

The SAT people may no longer be enamored of analogies, but I still think they’re a wonderful tool for achieving higher level thinking about language. In my high school classroom, I used them at least a couple of times a week as a bell ringer (brief work I’d have displayed on the projector that students would complete during the first few minutes of class as I took attendance).

Analogies really do make a wonderful warm-up for language arts work, so rather than working on them as a unit of study, scatter them throughout the year, doing just about two at a time as a prelude to other language arts work.

How to Work on Analogies

  1. Give the student a chance to answer the analogy unaided. If he or she answers correctly, make sure that he or she can explain why the answer is correct and that that answer wasn’t just a lucky guess.
  2. If the student needs help, first talk about the definition of the three given words in the problem. If the student isn’t sure of any of the words’ meanings, ask him or her to look for familiar word parts, like Greek or Latin roots, prefixes, and suffixes. For example, if the student picks out “hydro” in an unfamiliar word, he or she can guess that the word has something to do with water and can then try to puzzle out the word’s meaning based on that clue.
  3. If the student needs more help nailing down the meaning of the original three words in the analogy, have him or her consult a dictionary.
  4. Ask the student to determine the type of relationship between the first pair of words. This infographic lists some of the most common word relationships types.

analogy types infographic

5. See which of the word choices would correctly complete the second pair of words by giving them the same relationship IN THE SAME ORDER. (If the first pair had the relationship of part : whole, the second pair must also be listed in the order of part : whole. It cannot be ordered as whole : part.) Again, consider any familiar word parts when trying to determine the definition of unfamiliar words, and consult the dictionary.

Where can you find analogies?

For elementary grades:

For Middle School:

For High School:

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