Using the Four-Square Strategy to Identify & Define Key Vocabulary

Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we'll explore how to use the Four-Square Strategy to learn and remember important vocabulary words. We'll also practice with a couple sample words.

Challenging Vocabulary

You're reading along nicely, making good progress on your assignment and even enjoying it a bit, and suddenly, bang! You run into a word you don't know. You have a couple choices here. You can skip over the word and hope to kind of figure it out by the context, or you can stop and take just a little extra time to look up and learn the word. Which option should you choose? That's right, the second. It might take longer and involve more effort, but once you learn the word, it's yours forever.

All readers, no matter how advanced, run into new words, and it is a reader's responsibility to learn and remember them. Sometimes, though, just reading the definition in a dictionary isn't enough. It takes more time and effort to make the word your own. That's where the Four-Square Strategy comes in. This technique will help you learn vocabulary words more efficiently and remember them for the long haul.

The Four-Square Strategy

When you come across a word you don't know, your first stop is always to look it up in a print or online dictionary. Carefully read the word's definition and make sure you understand it. Then grab your vocabulary notebook. Yes, you should have a vocabulary notebook to organize and review all your new words. Just a regular old spiral notebook will work fine, and all your words will stay together and accessible. Open to a fresh page, and get ready to learn the Four-Square Strategy.

Four Square Chart
Four Square Strategy

First, draw a large square at the top of the page. Then divide it into four equal smaller squares by drawing a line up and down in the center of the square and another line in the center left to right. Finally, draw a circle right in the middle of the square.

In that circle, write your new vocabulary word. Now in the top left square, jot down the word's definition. Don't just copy from the dictionary. Instead, write a new definition in your own words. You'll remember it better if you have to get a little creative.

In the top right square, use the word in a sentence. This is a very important step in making the word your own. Words are made to be used, not just defined, so knowing how to actually use the word is crucial.

In the bottom left square, jot down one or two words that mean just about the same thing as your word. These are called synonyms. Then write one or two words that mean the opposite of your word. These are antonyms.

Finally, in the bottom right square, draw a picture, print one from the Internet, or cut one out of a magazine to illustrate the word. Sometimes a visual element will stick in your head better than anything else.

Follow this process for every new word you meet in your reading. Yes, it will take time and work, but you'll be surprised by how easily you'll remember your Four-Square Strategy words. You will have made them your own by interacting with them in such a thorough way.


Now let's practice using the Four-Square Strategy. Let's say you're reading a history text, and you come across the word 'chronology.' Yikes! What does that mean?!? So you look it up and find the following definitions: 'the order in which a series of events happened' and 'a record of the order in which a series of events happened' (Merriam-Webster online). Okay, that doesn't sound so bad.

Now you're ready to use the Four-Square Strategy to solidify the word 'chronology' in your brain. First, write the word in the circle in the middle of your four-square chart. Now write a definition in top left. Remember not to just copy a definition, but instead, write one in your own words, maybe something like 'the order in which things happen.'

Then, in the top right square, use the word in a sentence. You could write something like 'My teacher told me to learn the chronology, or order of events, for the Civil War.' In the bottom left square, write a synonym like 'time line' and an antonym like 'single moment.' Finally, in the bottom right square, draw a picture of a little time line and label it with a few events in American history.

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