I have an interest in the impact of early grade teachers teaching academic vocabulary — or the words that are typically used in academic dialogue and text -- as a part of their classroom instruction across subject area. I believe that an intentional focus on academic vocabulary when teaching across the content areas in the early grades will help close the achievement gap as well as help students comprehend grade level text independently as they matriculate through school and encounter increasingly challenging text. I believe that teaching academic vocabulary will help build children's content knowledge across subject areas.
As a part of my research, I surveyed 58 early grade teachers who work with children in kindergarten, first, second, and third grade. About 90% of them said that they teach academic vocabulary to their students. Those teachers who said they did not teach academic vocabulary taught third grade, though that group only amounted to about 6 teachers in this study, it still was interesting to think about. The survey question gave respondents the opportunity to answer "yes" or "no". It is true that this survey had a very small sample size and as such, it is possible that those teachers who said that they teach academic vocabulary knew that answering in the affirmative was "the right thing to do", but the responses did peek my interest. And so, this post is the beginnings of the research on the impact of early grade teachers teaching with a focus on academic vocabulary across subject area.
There is a case for the fact that children come to school with varying levels of word knowledge, whether because of economic status, home language, or a general lack of exposure to words spoken around them before beginning school. It is also important to note that along with these varying levels of word knowledge, there is also a variability in the rate that words are acquired for similar reasons. It is safe to say that these differences have been known to increase over time which can widen the gap between student groups which Keith Stanovich called the Matthew Effect in 1986 although it is debatable if the Matthew Effect applies to vocabulary knowledge.
From the work of Isabel Beck and her colleagues, academic vocabulary refers to the words that occur often across your curriculum in spoken or written school discourse. These words are important for comprehension of text read and heard in school and are often not known by some of our students who come to school with less exposure to english in the home. Beck and her colleagues suggested a system that can help educators priorities vocabulary for instruction in 2002. They tiered vocabulary for maximum impact. I will point out here that the idea of tiered vocabulary instruction may not be the only idea of how to prioritize which words to focus intentional vocabulary instruction on. It is the idea that I choose to use and may be the most familiar to educators. Both tier 2 (high utility words) and tier 3 (content [situation] specific words) are considered academic vocabulary and are the words I believe educators should center their vocabulary instruction around though there may be some instances and situations where tier 1 (basic words) may need to be directly taught if students do not get those word by incidental means.
Our basal reading programs have a vocabulary component that teachers can follow and according to my survey results, lots of early grade teachers use the words that our basal programs suggest to teach vocabulary. As I observe teachers and examine their lesson plans, I have noticed that some of the words that our basal programs suggest are not high utility tier 2 words or content specific tier 3 words (more research can be done here). Those words, though strategically placed, may be added to our basal texts to help with other skills necessary to reading comprehension, so we may need to begin to supplement words to teach to help students gain more word knowledge. Educators can supplement their vocabulary instruction with read aloud and shared reading opportunities to supplement basal reading programs in order to bring into our classroom instruction more depth and exposed children to rich different words that they may not otherwise be exposed to.
It is also important to expose children to what I like to say is the "language of the TEKS". I mean, words that are in our state standards or any state standards like, demonstrate, examine, manipulate, or identify. I have often heard the phase "Kid-friendly language" being used when conducting or planning instruction. I do agree that when stating the lesson objective, children should understand what teachers want them to do. What I am suggesting is that the language of the TEKS should be intentionally, explicitly taught so that those words can be considered kid-friendly. It is also important to intentional focus on content specific vocabulary, even in the early grades. Words that identify content across subject area like food chain, predator, water cycle, compose and decompose should also be intentionally, explicitly taught.
Once we have intentionally chosen words to teach, there are several strategies that have been used with students in grades 3-8 that can be added to vocabulary instruction by reading events like the read aloud and shared reading as a scaffold to help students begin to use those words in there reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Howard Goldstein and his colleagues wrote an article in 2017. In the article they suggest we consider the following when teaching vocabulary.
Do note when conducting vocabulary instruction it is important to know that new vocabulary knowledge builds on existing knowledge so when working with content specific vocabulary students will benefit from work helping them connect vocabulary words together by concept. Also remember that students who know fewer words may need additional support.
Information for this blog was taken from the following source:
Goldstein, H., Ziolkowski, R., Bojczyk, K., Marty, A., Schneider, N., Harpring, J. and Haring, C., 2017. Academic Vocabulary Learning in First Through Third Grade in Low-Income Schools: Effects of Automated Supplemental Instruction. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 60(11), pp.3237-3258.
Thank you for reading,
Pearl Garden, Ed.D has completed her dissertation research involving understanding the vocabulary instruction practices of early grade teachers. She has a passion for the new and novice educator, and it is her goal to help educators tackle the achievement gap with her research findings. She will use this blog to share what she has learned in “pearls of literacy”. The ideas come from her dissertation titled “A Content Analysis of the Vocabulary Instruction Habits by Early Grade Teachers”.