Sunday, September 7, 2014

Teaching vocabulary

I've been noticing that my students have been struggling with vocabulary for many years.  When I did my master's degree (through Walden University back in the last century), I did my master's project on effective vocabulary instruction, so I read a lot of vocabulary research back then.  It turns out, things haven't really changed.
In "Young Children" July 2010, Tanya Christ and and X. Christine Wang tell us

Some children come to school know- ing far fewer words than others. Hart and Risley (1995) studied young chil- dren’s vocabulary development and found that when children from families with low incomes were 3 years old, they knew 600 fewer words than children the same age from families with upper incomes. By grade 2, the gap widens to about 4,000 words (Biemiller & Slonim 2001).
At my school, they are so concerned about the gap that they've purchased a new amazing vocabulary instructional program that only takes 10 minutes per day and should add 6-8 words to kids' vocabulary each day.  However, it's my opinion that the school day is not enough time to give kids all the vocabulary they need.  Schools need help.  It turns out the help isn't as hard or as scary as you might imagine.  There are two ways big ways kids learn vocabulary.  One is from conversation and the second is from reading.  So if you want to help your child (or children you care about) build their vocabularies, talk to them and read to them.  Many parents stop reading to their kids when their kids learn to read.  BIG MISTAKE.  When kids are learning to read, they have to read easy books, parents can help build vocabularies by reading the kids books that are too difficult for them to read by themselves.

So here are a couple of new books you can look for that might give you some great topics of conversation with your kids.

For the littlest kids, one of the new Caldecott honor books is a wordless book called Journey by Aaron Becker.  Although you might think kids can't learn new vocabulary from a book that doesn't have words, let me tell you, this one will take you places and offer you vocabulary you never even thought of discussing with your child.  This is a book you can look at over and over again without ever tiring of the illustrations (they are amazing) and the more you look at it, the more you'll see.

For slightly bigger kids, or if you really MUST have words, consider poetry.  Usually poets have an amazing sense of word choice.  One of my favorites is Douglas Florian.  He's written several books that have super short poems on a variety of topics including mammals (Mammalabilia), insects (Insectlopedia), and dinosaurs (Dinothesaurus).  Here's an example of one of his poems.  It's called "The Fox"
A fox composed this poem
Not I.
See what I mean?  Amazing vocabulary... little bitty poem.  Anybody has time for that!

For bigger kids, think about some of that old fashioned stuff... those books you enjoyed as a kid have some remarkably great vocabulary.  Also consider non-fiction, that has tons of specific vocabulary (think about all those dinosaur books, talk about specific vocabulary!).  Think about cookbooks or newspapers or instructions for putting things together.  All of those offer great opportunities for vocabulary.  Even the grocery store is a great place to work on vocabulary!

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