Using Descriptive Adjective Object Boxes to Improve Science Vocabulary

Using Descriptive Adjective Object Boxes to Improve Science Vocabulary

Rule, Audrey C

Students in today’s classrooms come from diverse backgrounds; according to a recent U. S. Census (2002), 19% percent have at least one foreignborn parent, and 5% are immigrants themselves. Of school-age students, 16% are black, 15% percent are Hispanic, and 4% are Asian or Pacific Islander. This diversity provides both a challenge for teachers to meet children’s needs and the opportunity of a rich language environment. Teaching techniques that enhance academic learning while addressing all children’s language needs are becoming increasingly important. In this article, we will explore the use of descriptive adjective object boxes to improve students’ science observation skills, while simultaneously increasing descriptive vocabulary.

The Importance of Vocabulary to Science

In order to reason about or communicate observations of theirexperiences, students need a bank of descriptive vocabulary. The facts and concepts of science are communicated in words. Students who do not have the words to express their observations cannot relay them to others, nor can they process them mentally (Vygotsky, 1989). In order to discuss and write about science ideas effectively, students must have their own stores of expertise. The reason students copy science reports from encyclopedias rather than putting them “in their own words” is that they don’t have the experience or vocabulary to do so (Balaithy, 1988). Such experience starts with observation and crucial vocabulary begins with descriptive words.

Vocabulary is important to scientific reasoning and to communicating ideas about science, as described above, but also to reading about science. The importance of vocabulary in reading comprehension has been well-established (Anderson & Freebody, 1981; Davis, 1944). Yager (1983) reports that terminology is a central feature in most science textbooks, and since many classroom teachers use a text as the focus for much of what students do and learn, vocabulary becomes a major focus of science instruction. Yager further states, “In almost every case more attention to vocabulary is necessary in typical science classrooms than is necessary for mastering a foreign language” (Yager, 1983,586). Nelson-Herber (1986, p 628) discusses the problem of students reading science and other content area texts. The problem is “not that students have not learned the basic reading skills, it is that students lack the prior conceptual knowledge and the vocabulary knowledge to be able to ‘recognize’ words and construct meaning from text.”

Where will students acquire this background knowledge so that they can deal with all of this new terminology? Such knowledge must be rooted in experience in the same manner science knowledge is built-from observation to concept to generalization. Students need a foundation of hands-on experiences in observing, communicating, classifying, measuring, and making inferences about objects and events in the world around them (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1993). Although few would dispute the necessity of practice in basic science process skills, the descriptive vocabulary component of such encounters is often neglected.

Montessori sensorial materials help children become aware of qualities of objects, their interrelationships, existing principles of differentiation, organizational sequences, and techniques of handling objects. “When the child has fully mastered the principle involved, the child spontaneously proceeds to apply it to handling all kinds of objects. The material does nol, in the first place, teach children factual knowledge. Instead it makes it possible for them to reorganize their knowledge according to new principles. This increases their capacity for learning” (Montessori, 1976, p 22). The materials discussed in this article provide opportunities for application and extension of the sensorial concepts gained from the manipulation of sensorial materials.

Descriptive Vocabulary Object Boxes

One way for students to build descriptive vocabularies is through direct experience with a theme-based assemblage of real objects, each with a corresponding card of descriptive adjectives. A box of such a set of items is called a “descriptive adjective object box.” Maria Montessori developed the technique of using boxes of objects to concretely teach language concepts. “…the objects used in these writing games are for the most part toys of which we have a great many in the Children’s Houses. Among these toys are the furnishings of a doll’s house, balls, dolls, trees, flocks of sheep, or various animals, tin soldiers, railways, and an infinite variety of simple figures” (Montessori, 1964, p 297-8). Items that begin with letter sounds are used for introducing initial sounds, and other objects, such as a small hat, toy pig, or miniature tub, are used for early practice in phonetic spelling of words. The effectiveness of using objects in teaching language concepts has been recently described (Roney, 1994; Lapp, Fisher, and Flood, 1999; Peregoy and Boyle, 2001) and shown with experimental evidence (Rule and Barrera, 2003).

When phonics object boxes were used in the (irstauthor’s former first-second grade classroom at an urban, public Montessori magnet school in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, children from disadvantaged backgrounds and those with language difficulties increased their vocabularies markedly. Handling and sorting real objects motivated them. The students’ excitement in learning language concepts in a hands-on way prompted the author to construct many descriptive adjective object boxes, which increased vocabulary while allowing students to practice science process skills of observation and classification.

Pre-service teachers enrolled in the first author’s university classes have made hundreds of these descriptive adjective object boxes and have used them successfully with elementary children in public schools. Of particular interest is the impact this method may have on the improvement of vocabulary of students whose first language is not English. Rosanova (1998) has discussed how the environment of the InterCultura Montessori School in OakPark, Illinois “speaks” through concrete materials, helping students of other languages understand concepts through experience. Objects embodying concrete examples of physical properties such as “mottled,” “elastic,” “branching,” “chartreuse,” “pungent,” or “tinkling” may “speak” to students with limited English proficiency and help them to increase their vocabularies.

Object boxes for descriptive adjectives consist of three main components: the box (often a theme-related container), 10 or more related objects that vary widely in physical characteristics, and a corresponding set of cards with four descriptive adjectives printed on the front of each and a picture or drawing of the correct object on the back. Figure 1 shows a set of objects and descriptive adjectives from one of the boxes used in this study. Additional examples are described in Rule (1999) and Rule and Barrera (1999).

Observation skills underpin the use of object boxes. Students match a card bearing four descriptive adjectives with its corresponding object. The four adjectives are chosen so that together, they describe only one object in the box, although individual adjectives may match the physical characteristics of more than one object. Both new and familiar words are included in the adjective pool. However, a particular adjective is used only once in each set of cards so that a student is exposed to at least 40 different words per box.

Guidelines for Vocabulary Instruction

Clearly, all students need to develop vocabularies for science learning. Although extensive reading can increase students’ vocabulary, direct instruction that engages students cooperatively in active construction of word meaning while making connections to prior knowledge is also effective (Nelson-Herber, 1986). Lloyd and Contreras (1985, 1987) found that students acquired new word meanings better when they experienced the meanings rather than reading definitions and writing sentences.

Carr and Wixson (1986) described four guidelines for evaluating vocabulary instruction.

1. Instruction should help students relate new vocabulary to their background knowledge.

2. Instruction should help students develop elaborated word knowledge

3. Instruction should provide for active student involvement in learning new vocabulary.

4. Instruction should develop students’ strategies for acquiring new vocabulary independently.

The use of object boxes helps to accomplish these guidelines. First, students relate new vocabulary directly to their everyday lives when they examine common items or familiar toys and figures. Students immediately see the application of the new word as a physical attribute of the object at hand.

Second, object boxes promote elaboration of description of objects. When the teacher first introduces the object box, he or she points out other items in the student’s environment or experiences that have the same attributes being described to promote integration of new vocabulary with previous experience. Students are exposed to multiple contexts for new vocabulary when the same word is used in different object boxes to describe different objects. As students attempt to match each card of four descriptive adjectives with its corresponding object, they sort objects by physical attributes. For example, although the word “translucent” may only be printed on one card, there may be several objects in the box that exhibit this property. Students will gain practice in identifying all objects to which a given term applies as they search for the object that satisfies all four descriptive adjectives on a card.

Third, students are actively involved as they manipulate and sort objects. Students can experience “bumpy,” “rigid,” or “flexible” as they examine an object. The self-checking nature of cards with answers on the back allows students to work independently. Students can also collaborate as they work with an object box.

Finally, strategy development is encouraged when students assemble their own object boxes. Typically, students bring objects from home and compose cards of descriptive adjectives on the classroom computer. Students can use a thesaurus and dictionary to locate and check their words, thereby increasing their skills in use of reference texts.

Design of the Study

To determine the effect descriptive adjective object boxes have on vocabulary development, we conducted a study. Six classes of third-grade students (n = 115) at two rural southwestern Idaho schools located in rural farming/ranching communities in different school districts participated in use and non-use of object boxes to build descriptive vocabulary. The control group (n = 53) consisted of three classes at one school. The three classes comprising the experimental group (n = 62) used descriptive adjective object boxes at another rural elementary school. Only five students were excluded from the study because they moved to or from another school, or otherwise did not participate in both the pretest and post-test.

The two schools were chosen because both were involved with the authors’ university in a technology outreach project, and both were rural schools with significant Latino populations. However, demographic and achievement information later provided by the participating schools indicated that the control group had performed higher on standardized achievement tests and had somewhat different demographics. While the experimental group had significant numbers of students with Limited English-proficiency, the control group had no such students. Additionally, average achievement scores on reading and math in the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) demonstrated an advantage of almost 15 percentile points for students in the control group. Table 1 summarizes these and other key demographic data.

All six classes of students were administered the same pretest in October. Each student was given three objects: a hollow, spherical, multi-colored plastic holiday ornament; a piece of lightweight, pink, s-shaped Styrofoam packing material; and a small, red, flattened, glass marble. Sets of pretest and post-test objects were chosen to present a wide range of physical characteristics for description, differing in color, shape, texture, weight, luster, opacity, rigidity, etc. Students were asked to work individually and “Examine each of the three objects one at a time. List as many words as possible to describe each object.” Most students spent about 15 minutes writing their responses on the pretest.

During the following May, all students completed a post-test. The post-test used the same procedure as noted above, except three different objects were used: a realistic plastic eye for a stuffed animal; a lathe-turned wooden spindle; and a small brass jingle bell.

The control group received no treatment. These students followed the regular state curriculum for learning vocabulary and science process skills.

Materials Used in the Study

All students in the experimental group were exposed to 14 different descriptive adjective object boxes over the seven months between the pretest and post-test. The themes of these object boxes corresponded to state curriculum topics. They were passed between the three classrooms so that all students had the opportunity to learn with each of the object boxes.

In the fall, students studied earth processes, the rock cycle, mapping, and landforms. The following object boxes were introduced with these units of study: earth materials, volcanic rocks, plutonic igneous rocks and minerals, sedimentary rocks, symbols (to reinforce map symbols), and landforms. Another science unit was bird ecology. Three descriptive adjective object boxes were presented with this unit. A box containing tweezers, chisel, strainer, chopsticks, and other implements presented the topic of human tools that have similar functions to bird beaks. An additional set of cards featuring drawings of bird heads with beaks that corresponded in function to the tools provided a second activity. Another box held different bird statues that illustrated predator/prey eye positions in birds. Eyes located on the sides of the head usually indicate a bird that has good peripheral vision for detecting the approach of enemies, whereas a bird with binocular vision is usually a predator. Besides matching statues with descriptive adjective cards, students sorted birds as predators or prey. The third box contained realistic and nonrcalistic bird figures, allowing students to practice the additional skill of identifying nonrealistic characteristics of cartoon and stylized bird figures, in addition to matching figures with descriptive adjective cards.

One of the reading skills the third-grade teachers taught focused on words with multiple meanings. Two object boxes were constructed to teach this concept (similar to those described in Rule and Barrera, 2003) and additional descriptive adjective cards were included in each box for practicing descriptive vocabulary.

The teachers of the three experimental classes were enthusiastic about the increase they saw in student motivation, vocabulary, and science process skills as the school year unfolded. They each volunteered to create an object box that supported a curriculum topic. These boxes were shared among the three classrooms in the spring and included woodland mammals (science), Chinese artifacts (social studies), and items displaying simple three-dimensional geometric shapes (mathematics).

Response Scoring on Pretests and Post-tests

The number of words produced by each student for each object on the pretest and post-test was tabulated. Additionally, in order to gauge the vocabulary level of student responses, each word was scored for reading grade level by referring to a cumulative list of reading core vocabulary (EDL, 1979). However, this measure may underestimate a student’s vocabulary level, because reading a vocabulary word requires the student to recognize the word, whereas writing a word requires the student to produce information. Students read at higher grade levels than they write. Nevertheless, scoring each word by reading level gives a measure of vocabulary sophistication. The following procedure was used when scoring student responses:

* Classroom teachers reviewed student responses and asked students to clarify any illegible words. Teachers wrote these words correctly in the margins of the response sheet.

* Misspelled words were common and were scored the same as correctly spelled words.

* A phrase or sentence related to one characteristic was counted as one response. The highest scoring descriptive word in the phrase or sentence was used to indicate the grade level of the response.

* A student’s response containing a suffix (e.g., -s, -ed, -y, -ing, -ish, -able, or -ful) or prefix (e.g., un-, non-) that was not listed on the core vocabulary list was scored for the root word it contained.

* A student’s response containing an incorrect suffix (e.g., “roundish,” “tie-to-able,” “reflectiony,” and “goldish”), was scored for the root word it contained.

* A small number of words (e.g. “glimmering,” “3-D,” “turquoise,”and “squishy”) were not found on the cumulative word list. The investigators used their judgment in assigning a grade level to these words by comparing them to words of similar spelling and semantic sophistication on the word list.

Inter-rater Reliability

Approximately 25% percent of student responses on the pretest and post-test were randomly chosen and re-scored (number of words and grade level of words) by an independent party. The inter-rater agreement was 98%, thus establishing a high degree of consistency in scoring.

Tables 2, 3, and 4 list sample pretest and post-test responses generated by students with and without limited English proficiency (LEP) in the experimental group and a student in the control group.


An analysis of variance for repeated measures on the number of words generated by the two groups on the two tests indicated a significant group effect (F=26.64, df=1/113, p=.001), a significant trials effect (F=11.07, df=1/113, p=.001) and, of most importance, a significant Groups X Trials interaction (F=42.17, df= 1/113, p

An analysis of variance for repeated measures on the grade level of words generated by the two groups on the two tests indicated a nonsignificant group effect (F=.47, df=1/113, p=.49), asignificant trials effect (F=5.90, df=1/113, p=.02), and, of most importance, a significant Groups X Trials interaction (F=12.96, df=1/113, p

Because students with LEP were only in the experimental group, no comparisons could be made, thus descriptive statistics were computed to characterize this subgroup’s performance. Students with LEP (n=13) generated twice as many words on the post-test as they did on the pretest (pretest mean = 13.62, SD=6.50; post-test mean=26.31, SD= 10.50). The grade level of words generated increased on average .43 (SD=.41).

Additional subgroup analyses were conducted on Latino students who were not classified as LEP. Because of the small number of these students, only descriptive statistics are reported. Table 7 shows mean and standard deviations for the number of words generated by the two groups on the pretest and post-test. The mean grade level of words increased on average by .04 (SD=.52) in the experimental condition. For the control condition, the grade level of words generated dropped on average .28 (SD=.32).


The significant interaction terms reveal treatment effects for both number and grade level of words generated. On number of words generated, the lack of difference between groups on the pretest and the significant difference between groups on the post-test reveal a strong treatment effect. In regards to grade level of words generated, the interaction graph (see Figure 3) reveals a favorable treatment effect. Experimental students made solid gains whereas control students regressed significantly (F=21.5, df=1/55, p

The curriculum delivered to the students in the control and experimental conditions was investigated to better understand the nature and context of the findings. Teachers in both groups reported spending roughly equal amounts of time on reading, spelling, composition, and vocabulary development. Experimental group teachers, however, reported organizing their science activities around themes based on the provided object boxes and thereby engaging in a great deal of observation and classification activities. They did not use a science textbook, whereas all three control group teachers reported basing lessons on a science text. However, control group teachers did involve students in hands-on activities that were suggested in the text. Both groups reported that students participated in special activities to increase vocabulary.

Object boxes acted as a catalyst, inspiring the experimental group teachers to do more science activities. Teachers came to the authors midyear, asking to learn to create more objects boxes to fit with other aspects of the third grade curriculum. All the boxes became central parts of unit delivery. Students cycled through all object boxes, and spent time working with them almost every day. During a classroom visit, one teacher excitedly showed the first author evidence of how much time students had spent with the boxes. Students repeatedly ran their fingers over the cards as they worked until the print on the cards and card edges were nearly worn away.

Students with LEP also benefited from the object boxes. They made dramatic gains in the number of words generated and solid gains in grade level of words. Interestingly, these students received no other language services. Thus, the gains they made are not confounded with the effects of an ongoing language intervention program. Logically, students with limited English proficiency will tend to score lower than their proficient English-speaking counterparts on tests such as those used in this study. The discrepancies in performance scores between students with and without LEP in the experimental group, therefore, are not surprising. However, the fact that the same students with LEP scored better than their English-proficient peers in the control group may be attributed to the impact of the treatment.

Limitations of the Study

Future research is needed to explore the specific contribution object boxes make to vocabulary development. As reported ear lier, experimental teachers reported creating more dynamic classroom environments than control group teachers. Although object boxes were centerpieces of these environments, confounding does occur and future research is needed to tease out the relative contribution of the boxes.

Although the results indicating superior performance of students with both limited English and English proficiency in the experimental group are encouraging, direct comparisons between control and treatment groups of limited English speakers would have added significantly to the analysis.

One unforeseen factor that may have had an impact on results is the observed decrease in performance of the control group from the pretest to the post-test. This difference was small though statistically significant (pretest control mean = 18.2 and post-test control mean – 15.0). The objects chosen for the post-test may have caused this discrepancy: the eye, spindle, and bell may be more difficult to describe than the ornament, Styrofoam, and marble; or, the difference may reflect a setback in student ability to produce descriptive vocabulary. Perhaps students had not recently practiced describing physical characteristics of objects. A final possibility is that the students were tired or unmotivated to work on the day of the post-test, although the person administering the post-tests reported that control group students appeared eager to describe the objects on the post-test.


Descriptive adjective object boxes seem to play a role in increasing and improving third grade students’ descriptive vocabularies. Students with LEP particularly seem to profit from their use by making larger vocabulary gains and almost catching up with their proficient English-speaking peers. The use of object boxes to increase descriptive vocabulary shows promise in improving the language for academic use of students with poor English skills and in improving students’ science process skills.

Descriptive adjective object boxes can provide the opportunity for students to learn new descriptive vocabulary in a concrete way while simultaneously practicing the science process skills of observation and classification. Assemblages can be chosen to reinforce science or other subject-area themes that match the curriculum. Students in the experimental group worked in small groups to create object boxes of their own, thereby practicing the important skills of generat-ing descriptive words.

After experiencing several descriptive adjective object boxes, second-graders in the first author’s Montessori classroom worked together to create another box related to “rabbits,” shown in Figure 4. Using objects provided by the teacher, students generated a pool of descriptive adjectives for each word, and then chose four unique words for each item. These words represented both observations made with the senses and inferences based on observed traits (words such as “happy,” “jolly,” “shy,” and “playful”). Students expressed a sense of accomplishment at completing the box. They proudly showed younger students in the class how to use the materials, enriching them with new vocabulary while enhancing their explanation skills. Why not try this with your students?


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DR. AUDREY C. RULE is an AMS credentialed teacher and associate professor of early childhood and childhood education, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, State University of New York at Oswego.

DR. MANUEL T. BARRERA, III, is an assistant professor in the Department of Education Urban Teachers Program, Metropolitan State University, MN.

DR. ROGER A. STEWART is a professor of curriculum, instruction, and Foundational Studies at Boise State University, ID.

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