Dancing Definitions©

A “Touching the Spirit” Explicit Teaching Strategy
Designed to Accelerate Academic Vocabulary and Language Mastery

Dancing Definitions is a pre-reading culture-based teaching strategy that leads to mastery of definitions critical to understanding a text selection that is to be read or a subject that is to be studied. Using inquiry approaches, the teacher engages students in discussions that help them understand the meanings of each of the words. To ensure understanding, students are guided in relating the vocabulary to their experiences and prior knowledge. Only after this step are the definitions and “tag” sentences memorized. This is the actual teaching part of the strategy—teaching for understanding. Both brain-based and culture-based approaches are incorporated to accelerate memorization.

Why memorization of the definitions and sentences? Isn’t understanding enough? The clear, concise, expressive language patterns internalized as the definitions and sentences are memorized become models that students can use as references. These language models are especially important for those students who need significant acceleration in the development of academic language skills to meet literacy standards.

Skills Addressed

• Vocabulary Development: Accelerated study and high retention of definitions.
• Language Development: Internalization of academic language patterns in models of clear concise definitions and example sentences.

Steps Involved

1. Carefully scan a text planned for an upcoming lesson. Identify all the words whose meanings students are not sure of or cannot clearly explain.

2. Divide the words into categories: 1) unfamiliar challenging words; 2) unfamiliar words that have meanings that are easily learned and retained using pictures, demonstrations etc.; and 3) familiar words whose meanings students cannot clearly explain.

3. Choose 8-10 words from categories 1 and 3 for Dancing Definitions. (If more than 10 words, then teach in two or more groups on different days.)

4. By revising and adapting textbook explanations and dictionary and glossary entries, create definitive descriptions and tag sentences consistent with the usage of the words in the selection to be read. See examples for descriptive meanings vs. strict definitions. These are written in descriptive sentence form (see examples). The tag sentences help relate the word meanings to students’ experiences. The definitions “dance” (not the students) as they are written in a memorable, rhythmic pattern with some restrained, but meaningful physical movements. Write the definitions and tag sentences on chart paper.

5. Using inquiry, discussion, visual aids, internet resources, etc., explore with the students the meanings of the words in categories 1 and 2. Relate these words to their experiences and prior knowledge, so that they are clearly understood. This is the teaching step.

6. Using rhythmic recitation, meaningful repetition, teacher modeling, and continual search for patterns, lead students in the memorization of the definitions and tag sentences. This is the mastery phase. The definitions become a part of students’ memory base, available for exact recall in clear concise language.

7. Students are introduced to and taught to a level of understanding before memorization, eight to ten definitions and tag sentences every three to four days and hundreds during the year. Depending on the grade level students gradually take responsibility for some of the preparation and teaching activities.

Related Learning Principles

• Mastery (as opposed to only explanation and discussion) of vocabulary and language skills as essential to the acceleration of literacy skills for students who are significantly behind.
• The use of rhythm, recitation, repetition, and relationships as culture and cognition-based teaching and learning patterns.
• There is a strong link between movement and learning.
• The “Touching the Spirit” cultural continual search for patterns, expectations of excellence, teacher modeling, intensive direct instruction and practice, and focus on discourse and inquiry as supportive practices.
• Memorization of vocabulary meanings to serve as references for reading, writing, and speaking.
• Memorization of excellent academic language models to internalize their patterns.
• Utilizing culture and cognition in the acceleration of learning.
• Novelty and ritual aid in learning and retention.


• Students demonstrate heightened understanding of a text selection, due to the pre-reading mastery of the word meanings and sentences.
• Students retain the definitions and apply this knowledge when they meet these words in other contexts
• Student writing reflects the transfer of excellent language patterns due to the memorization of numerous definitions and tag sentences.

The above strategy Dancing Definitions is from Augusta Mann. The video examples below are part of the Miss Augusta Collection and Touching the Spirit™. Learn more at www.successfulteachers.com.