I have often shared that as a second-grade teacher, I discovered that I was not teaching vocabulary in a way that students learn and in fact, even my students who were doing well academically (and have proven so on norm-referenced assessment) were not doing well in vocabulary. As a result, I began to try to figure out what I needed to do. I wanted to understand what vocabulary instruction should look like in my classroom and in classrooms that look like mine. I have been a literacy coach and Texas Reading Academy Cohort Leader for the past few years and have observed numerous abouts of classroom instruction paying attention their literacy instruction and how they teach vocabulary. I have also studied reading and literacy both at the masters and doctorate level specifically so that I can answer that question. In brief, here is what I found.
Often early grade teachers’ focus is on teaching children how to read. Teaching reading has proven to be a daunting task, especially if you as an educator are not trained effectively to do so (I will not go into detail about that part here). It is no wonder that vocabulary instruction is not considered nor taught early. Early grade teachers are spending time helping students map speech to print and match print to speech, teaching children the meaning of those words is an added task that we sometimes don’t plan for nor have time to do. It is very important that we change this narrative! Our children come to us with a varied about of words known, used, and heard so some children may come to us behind their peers and if that is not tackled early we send those children to third grade, fourth grade, and fifth grade even further behind because the text they are reading then are filled with academic and higher level words they may not know how to read and don’t know how to figure the meaning of. We run the risk of losing those students because children that read and enjoy reading, read more; and consequently, children that don’t enjoy reading, read less, and may display habits that deflect from reading at all. Okay, off my soapbox (for now), what does early grade vocabulary instruction look like? I will tell you now… I must get a little technical, but I will break it down for you.
Word learning theorist say that there is a particular way that children learn to read words, I’m examining pre-reading here. It starts with what they hear. Without going too far down the rabbit hole, children hear conversations (in their native language) some debate before they are born, but certainly after they are born, they hear adults talk and engage in conversations, they see movies and television shows, and they hear stories read and told to them. Eventually they learn that the sounds they hear represent language and can then equate that to print, first environmental print like seeing a store sign and knowing that is where I get my happy meal, but not necessarily that that golden arch is an “m”. Early grade teachers help children match letters and letter combinations with the sounds that they make to read and spell words. Vocabulary instruction can start then!
Oral language is still a very important tool to help children learn. Since children are still learning to master the alphabetic principle (the understanding that words are made up of letters and letter combinations that represent sounds), teachers can and should read aloud books with rich vocabulary that children may not have already been exposed to. Teachers should also be using academic language interchanging the academic term for a synonym children may be more familiar with. In fact, during these early phases children should be exposed to a breath of vocabulary words to fill their mental backpack with. As they are learning to read words, they should also be exposed to lots of words. Children certainly do need to learn word learning strategies, like how to use context and illustrations to understand the meaning of words they do not know. Teachers should model how this is done, when they are reading and rereading aloud those books to children. As children matriculate through school and encounter “increasingly challenging text” teachers can begin to introduce word study and morphology (the study of units of sound that have meaning) and expose them to deeper meanings of the words they are learning, introducing them to how interconnected words and word families.
What does this all mean? In sum, vocabulary instruction in the early grade classroom looks like exposing children to lots of words, by reading to them, talking to them, and letting them talk to each other about what they are learning-in authentic ways, when possible. Teachers are not only exposing children to rich new words, but they are also modeling how to figure out the meaning of unfamiliar words and letting children practice that on their own. Think breath of word learning early and depth of work knowledge and they begin to learn more words and sprinkling in word learning strategies as the children are exposed to “increasingly challenging text”. This will ensure children are being set up for success as they begin to practice these skills independently.
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”.