When I read a book to a group of children I usually identify one or two words which we discuss in order to make sure all the children understand what the word means. On a good day, I have identified the words before I begin reading, but all too often I just choose a couple of words as I am reading the book. Then a few days ago I read an article (available here) on vocabulary development on the Education Week website, and I found myself giving my methods a good hard look.
We all know that the number of words a young child has in their working vocabulary is a good indicator of academic success. Children from low-income families often enter school with over a 1000 word deficit when compared to children from more affluent families. Most early childhood educators will agree that helping children develop their vocabularies is critical. They will talk about using many and diverse word choices when talking to their students, introducing new words as they have interactions with the students, and reading high-quality literature. To be sure, these are all strategies that we need to continue using, but a study at the University of Michigan found that relying on “teachable moments” does little to close the vocabulary gap. The study found that
“…because most words were chosen from the stories, they had little connection to other words being taught at the same time and were rarely words that students would need to understand instructions or academic content in later grades. Prior studies have shown that students learn words better when they are grouped with related words.” (Sarah Sparks, “Students Must Learn More Words”; Education Week Feb. 5, 2013)
Looking back I can see that this is true. Most of the time, after we discussed a word, we didn’t ever revisit that particular word again. I know that I can’t start using a new word after seeing it used once. Why do I think my students can? Furthermore, the article points out that by trying to teach the word in a single isolated example, children often don’t understand the full meaning of the word. The example they give is learning the word “transportation” while reading a book about trains. Children may think this word only relates to trains. Unfortunately the article did not give specific suggestions on how to develop vocabulary with young children. However in light of this new information and what I know about how children learn, here are some ideas I’d like to try so that children get more opportunities to understand new words and add them to their vocabularies.
1. Make a list of words that I’d like to ensure that my students know: This is one I’ve thought about for a while, but never took the time to do. These may be words that can be used in any curriculum areas such as “compare”, “gentle”, or “include”; or they may be words for a specific theme or concept such as “autumn”, “community”, or “observe”. I then need to be intentional about developing the children’s understanding of these words using a variety of techniques. I need to have a few words each month that I am focused on, and use them multiple times in different contexts and situations. The words I’ve chosen should be posted in the room to remind myself and others who work with the children which words we are focused on. When the children add them to their working vocabularies, I need to notice. It may be nice to even add it to the monthly newsletter that is sent home with each child.
2. Be more intentional about the words I develop while reading books. When I pick words, especially on the fly, I chose words that aren’t used very often. To be sure, these are words that many of my students don’t know. But if it’s not a word I use in my speaking vocabulary, there needs to be a compelling reason to discuss it. For example in the book Caps for Sale there is a peddler. We should still discuss this word, even though it is not often used today because it is integral to the story. The book also uses “checked” meaning “plaid”. Even though most children don’t know this word, it wouldn’t be the best choice because it is rarely used today, and is not integral to understanding the story. A better word to develop would be “straighten”, even though a few children might already know it, because it has many contexts in which it is used.
3. Revisit words I have introduced during a teachable moment. When engaging in whole group, small group, and individual conversations, I often find myself introducing new words to help expand the children’s vocabularies based on the needs of the moment. These are great words to teach the children because they are based on what the children are interested in and the direction they choose to take the learning. However, I need to make sure these words enter their vocabularies by using them in additional situations beyond the one that introduced the word. By making a quick note of the words I have introduced, I can remind myself to find the word in books, use it during interactions with the students, and include it during class discussions.
Do you have any great ideas for fully developing new vocabulary with your students? Are you planning to try something new to help your children develop their vocabularies? If so, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.