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Powerful Vocabulary to Explain Powerful Nonfiction

Making sense of nonfiction narratives related to history is easier if students recognize themes or central ideas the authors are revealing AND have a strong grasp on vocabulary they can use to help them describe these themes. Imagine how understanding and using words like perseverance, courage, tenacity, and despair can lift the level of access to meaning making for our students!

What follows is a list of words you might introduce over time. My recommendation would be to introduce these words using the four steps described in an article I co-wrote for I’d also keep these posted (with the definition) for students to reference as needed.

Theme/Central Idea Words & Sample Narrative Nonfiction Texts (Just a note – so many of these texts lend themselves to discussing multiple themes from this list!)

  • Perseverance, Tenacity (like in the book With Courage and Cloth: Winning the Fight for a Woman’s Right to Vote)
  • Humanitarianism (like in Hitler Youth)
  • Cooperation (like in Looking for Miza)
  • Education (like in Hitler Youth)
  • Compassion, Benevolence, Empathy (like in Side by Side: The Story of Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez)
  • Destruction, Displacement (like in Disasters: Natural Man-Made Catastrophes Through the Centuries)
  • Empowerment (like in Owen and Mzee)
  • Rebirth, Renewal, Restoration (like in The Prairie Builders)
  • Collective wisdom, Capacity (like in The Many Faces of George Washington: Remaking a Presidential Icon and Marching to the Mountaintop: How Poverty, Labor Fights, and Civil Rights Set the Stage for MLK Jr.’s Final Hours)
  • Nonviolent, Peaceful, Placid, Amicable (like in We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March)
  • Community (like in The Hive Detectives: Chronicle of Honey Bee Catastrophe)
  • Global citizenship (like in Trapped: How the World Rescued 33 Miners from 2,000 Feet Below the Chilean Desert)
  • Friendship, Alliance, Harmony, Solidarity (like in Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom)
  • Courage, Endurance, Determination, Enterprise (like in STAY: The True Story of Ten Dogs)
  • Hope (like in Marching for Freedom: Children Don’t You Grow Weary)
  • Survival (like in Recess at 20 Below)
  • Fear, Trepidation, Reverence (like in March On! The Day My Brother Martin Changed the World)
  • Injustice, Tyranny, Oppression (like in Black & White: The Confrontation of Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth & Eugene “Bull” Connor”
  • Surmounting obstacles (like in Bomb: The Race to Build -and Steal – the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon)
  • Vulnerability (like in Beyond Courage: The Untold Story of Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust)
  • Diversity (like in What We Wear: Dressing Up Around the World and other Global Fund For Children Books, A Rainbow at Night: The World in Words and pictures by Navajo Children)
  • Discovery, Curiosity (like in The Tarantula Scientist)
  • Change, Metamorphosis, Innovation, Transformation (like in Out of the Dump)
  • Communication (like in The Elephant Scientist)
  • Dangers of ignorance, knowledge versus ignorance (like in Hitler Youth)
  • Progress, Breakthrough, Momentum (like in Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez)
  • Instigation, Agitation, Disturbance, Perturbation, Provocation (like in Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice)

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