Vocabulary knowledge is a major building block in children’s early literacy development. It provides the foundation for learning to decode and comprehend text. Many children, especially English language learners, need support in acquiring the substantial vocabulary they need to become good readers.
Reading books to children is one way to introduce them to a wide range of vocabulary that they may not hear in their everyday conversations with adults and peers. For example, in the book Chugga Chugga Choo Choo by Daniel Lewis (1999), children may be introduced to words such as hurry, load/unload, freight, empty, steep, deep, wide, swift, tunnel, and underground. Knowing these words may help children understand texts in language arts, science, and social studies throughout their school years.
Work by Isabel Beck, Margaret McKeown, Andrew Biemiller and countless others has led to consensus on principles of effective vocabulary instruction. In developing a curriculum for both monolingual English speakers and English language learners, I applied these principles in what I termed the Multidimensional Vocabulary Program (MVP). This program integrated multiple ways of teaching words to support children’s word learning. The principles of the MVP curriculum hold promise for supporting the vocabulary development of all learners, especially English language learners.
The Multidimensional Vocabulary Program included the following characteristics of instruction:
Introduce words through engaging children’s literature
Introducing words through children’s literature provides context for children to experience and understand the meaning of words. Connecting words to the theme of the book helps to ground children’s understanding of words and to see how words are related. Teachers can use prompts such as, “In this book, the workers had to hurry to get all of the boxes onto the train. They had to go really fast so the train could get going.”
Provide children with clear definitions and explanations of words
To explain words to children, simple words that children already know should be used. Children should be able to easily understand the explanation so they can quickly understand what a word means and connect new words to words they already know. For example, to define load and unload, a teacher could say, “If you load something onto a train that means you put it onto the train. If you UN-load something from a train that means you take it off of the train.”
Encourage children to think of examples of words in various contexts
Children need to be able to transfer their understanding of words to new contexts so that when they see or hear those words in other places they understand what they mean. Talking about words from book to book is one way of showing children how words are used in other contexts. Another way to help them see how words are used in other contexts is asking them to think about how the words apply to their own knowledge and experiences. In explaining the word freight, for example, a teacher might say, “Have you ever seen a train on the tracks? Did you notice the cars of the train? Inside of those train cars, there are lots of things that are being taken from one place to another. The stuff that is being brought from one place to another is called freight. What are some things that you think could be freight on a train?”
Guide children to compare and contrast words
For children to develop depth of vocabulary knowledge, they need to be exposed to the definitions of words and examples of words, but they also need to think critically about the meaning of words and how words are related. This can be done by asking them to think of synonyms or antonyms of words. In order to encourage children’s depth of word knowledge, it is important to guide children to critically think about words. This can be done by asking children to think about whether words would be appropriate in various new contexts. If a teacher is focusing on the word empty, she could ask children to decide, “What is the opposite of empty? Is full the opposite of empty?”
Invite children to act out words and/or show children how to illustrate words
While linguistic definitions, explanations, and examples are important, many children, especially English language learners, need extra nonverbal support for word learning. Modeling how to act out words and guiding children to act out words can help them understand words better. Also, showing children visual representations of words (e.g., picture cards) and supporting children in illustrating the words themselves can help them to more deeply process word meaning. To teach the word steep, for example, teachers can have children show what a steep mountain would look like with their hands and/or draw a picture of a steep mountain on chart paper.
Ask children to pronounce words
Children need to know how words sound and how to say words in order to connect the meaning of the word to the phonological representation of the word. Children also need to be able to distinguish between words that sound similar so that they can do not get confused when they hear or read these words. Having children say words out loud is one way to help children establish a clear phonological representation of the word. An example might be the following: “Say deep. Now say steep. How do these words sound the same? How do they sound different?”
Direct children’s attention to how words are spelled
Most vocabulary instruction for young children should be oral because children can understand the meaning of advanced words orally long before they can read those words in text and because we want children to understand words orally so that when they do encounter them in text they know what they mean. However, for children who are at the beginning stages of reading and beyond, drawing children’s attention to the spelling of words can help them make connections between how words sound, what they mean, and how they look in print. Initially, teachers can write words on word cards and post them next to pictures of the word. For example, a teacher might post the word wide next to a picture of a wide river and call children’s attention the word when reviewing the CVCe pattern in phonics.
Repeat words and reinforce word learning
Perhaps most importantly, using words over and over again will help children incorporate those words as part of their everyday vocabulary. Teachers should seek to use words throughout in various contexts and review words and word meanings as part of their daily practice. For example, asking children do demonstrate running swiftly on the playground or asking them to draw an underground tunnel can reinforce word learning. And, asking children to explain, give an example, or demonstrate the meaning of a word when children are lining up for the end of the day is another way to review words children are learning.
Interview with Dr. Rebecca Silverman
Dr. Silverman talks about the two most important things parents can do to help their child build vocabulary skills: talk and read with your child every day.