Words Matter! Vocabulary Instruction that Sticks
“Mom! My brother knocked over my magnatiles and that’s not constructive!” My four year old cries at me from her room.
After mitigating the disaster that is inevitable between siblings, especially when one is four and the other not quite 2 years old, I reflected with pride on the literal but correct use of a sophisticated vocabulary word that my preschooler used. To be fair, she’s not a word savant, but we had recently chatted about the kinds of words we use in our family. “Calm, kind, constructive words” was a little song I’d sung to help her. I briefly explained how constructive means to build up, like what construction workers do when my kids see them working on the roads in Boston.
Kids are more than capable of learning and using advanced vocabulary, but we often don’t give them the opportunity to, or we lack the skills or resources to intentionally build their knowledge and love of words.
In today’s blog we’ll talk about the research behind vocabulary instruction & practical ways to embed it in your classroom practice. We will answer the following questions:
- Why teach specific vocabulary words?
- What routines can you incorporate ?
Why teach specific vocabulary words?
First and not surprisingly, the research is clear that when you teach specific words before reading a text, it helps children understand that specific text. Far too often, students who are not “reading” well in school are the ones who don’t have a depth of knowledge around the words in text. Explicit instruction in vocabulary is essential, not optional.
Second, it is important to understand that learning words is ongoing and incremental. Students’ depth of knowledge around a word will grow with exposure, time and experience. Think for a moment about the word “jump”. Most early learners will understand that it means to bounce up and down. But what about the phrase “I’m going to jump in the car and I’ll be right back”. Imagine a learner of english picturing you bouncing up and down in your car until some time when you are ready to come back?! Heaven forbid the aforementioned car breaks down and you need to give it a jump to get it going. Even a simple word like jump grows in depth of meaning with context, experience and time. The following image brings this idea to life from Gwen Blumberg :
Finally, word learning must be connected, not isolated. Teaching individual words is not the point of vocabulary instruction. Building word networks is. We have the incredible opportunity to show students how words are related to each other and in doing so, we model the strategies for seeing connections in the unknown words they will come across in their own reading. For example, we recently taught the word “companion” before reading the book “Amazing Grace” with a group of second graders. When we taught the word, we were intentional about naming the morphology – the prefix “com”, meaning with or together, gives us a big clue about the word. We related it to other words like community, common, company.
What routines can you incorporate in your classroom?
We were intentional about our word usage here (because words matter, right?) and are going to name three routines, rather than activities we’d encourage you to consider. In our view, activities tend to be “one-off” moments in the classroom that seldom get repeated. Conversely, a routine is a system that repeats regularly within a given cycle, perhaps within a week or a unit. Activities may have a lot to prepare while a routine requires minimal preparation.
Routine 1: Lift the Level of Talk: One of the simplest but most effective ways to increase vocabulary instruction in your classroom as a teacher is to use more “big” words in your conversations with kids. Whether you are teaching a reading lesson or helping kids get in line for recess there are moments of opportunity to lift the level of speech. For example, you might choose to include a new greeting in your morning message each week.” Salutations Second Graders, what a monumental snow day we had yesterday.” Or when you are helping students with conflict resolution you might say “Students I noticed you were perturbed at each other on the playground, let’s discuss how we can solve that problem.” The beautiful picture books that you use to read aloud have more rare words per 1,000 that most high level adult conversation. So after you read aloud, see if you can sprinkle in some of those words through your classroom conversations.
Routine 2: Word Continuum: Teaching words in relationship to others is a critical way to help students. Word Continuum is a game from Isabel Beck’s book Bringing Words to Live that helps students see the nuance between word meanings. We modified the name and call it “Which Word Goes Where & Why” with students. Here’s how you play. Write words on note cards that are related to each other in some way (cold to hot, slow to fast, normal to weird) and the students have to decide where each word would go on a line or continuum. For example, In a 5th grade unit on the American Revolution you might briefly define and then give these verbs to students on notecards and have them discuss in groups which is the most violent expression “revolt, protest, boycott, riot, massacre, resist, destroy”. We recently led a conversation with a group of third graders who were reading Thomas Taylor’s Malamander. We had them sort the words Eerie, Mysterious, Normal, Natural, Supernatural, Spooky and Usual. It was fascinating to hear the kids debate that “spooky was definitely more strange than mysterious, because something could be a mystery but not actually scary, but if it is “spooky” then it has an element of fear to it”. This activity is best when students have some familiarity with the words, but you are trying to deepen their understanding.
Routine 3: Word Wall or Word Jar – Very simply, keep a large mason jar in the classroom with strips of paper and when students discover a new or interesting word they get to write it down and add it to the jar. Get a copy of our Word Jar Strips here! To launch the word jar, you might read Peter Reynolds Word Collector or another similar title. Spark kids interest as word detectives, always on the lookout for new and interesting vocabulary words. By the end of the week you can pull out all the words that student’s found, keep a running tab of how many the whole class can get in a week!
Words and word learning matters, not just for literacy but for all of life and learning.
By no means, is one blog post comprehensive enough to explore all of the ways vocabulary is being studied (the research) and can be taught in classrooms (the practice). Nevertheless, we hope this gives you a taste and you’ll come along with us as we learn more together.