Teaching the power of precise verbs with procedures

Precise verbs blog

I love teaching procedural texts. Not only do we get to focus on text structure and language features, but we get to play with common sense and detail! These two important factors can be considered in our writing when we choose precise verbs.

A classic engagement lesson for introducing procedures is showing your students how to make a jam sandwich. BUT getting your students to tell you what to do. This leads to hilarious moments such as a whole tub of butter being put on top of a slice of bread, and a great conversation about verbs.

One of the first things we can notice when co-constructing a procedure with our students is the overuse of the words PUT and GET. Quite simply, this can be from a lack of topic-specific vocabulary.

GET the bread, PUT the butter on, PUT the jam on, GET a knife, PUT the sandwich on a plate, etc.

Our procedures can end up being BORING and lacking in detail when we forget to use precise verbs.

Instead of GET, we can use gather, collect, find, buy, purchase, borrow, etc

Instead of PUT, we can use words like place, position, and lay.

Of course, in this instance, we have used PUT instead of more topic-specific verbs, such as SPREAD.

SPREAD the butter on the bread is much more specific than PUT the butter on the bread (although PUT can lead to the hilarity mentioned above).

It is through learning how easily our readers can become confused, and learning more about their topic and its vocabulary, that our students learn to become more precise and detailed in their writing.

It’s also why making precise verb choices should be one of the success criteria that you teach explicitly and include as a learning goal for students.

How can we encourage students to use precise verbs?

Here’s one of my favourite lessons for improving our verb choices and topic-specific vocabulary within a procedural text. BONUS – it also makes a great addition to your learning wall.

This activity works best when students have chosen their own topic for their pre-test, as you will get a range of verbs.

A lesson on finding precise verbs

You will need:

  • Student pre-test (a piece of procedural writing they completed before explicit teaching)
  • Paint colour swatches (the ones with 3-4 shades of the same colour) from your hardware store – you’ll need about 20!
  • Highlighters and black sharpies
  • Access to a dictionary (online or physical copy)

Lesson steps:

  1.  Students highlight the verbs in their texts
  2. As a whole class, collect a list of verbs used on a whiteboard
  3. Pair students up and assign them a verb to research (EG CUT)
  4. Cross out the verb on the whiteboard, so it is not used again.
  5. Students research precise verbs that are synonyms for their given word. For example CUT: slice, slit, chop, dice, trim
  6. Students write their given verb (eg CUT) on the top section of their card and their more precise verbs in the section underneath.
  7. Collect the color swatches and display them on your learning wall. If you wanted to, you could trim the top of the swatches and add craft sticks to make them look like ice creams –  students love this and some handy helpers could do this for you.
  8. Next lesson, practise writing a procedure and replacing boring verbs with precise verbs from your learning wall!

This is an effective and engaging activity that students love. You will find that they WILL return back to their words and they WILL improve their chosen verbs.

Other activities to improve verb choice and topic-specific vocabulary:

  • Watch a video of a cooking show and write down verbs you hear
  • Annotate a recipe, highlight verbs, and even research more specific verbs if needed

Use this freebie in your next procedural writing lesson!

Teachie Tings Procedural Writing Resources