As a classroom teacher, I found that my students who were mostly from low income areas were not acquiring and using new vocabulary in their reading, writing, and speaking. The problem with that for me really was discovering that even my students who would normally achieve and thrive, who were not from low-income backgrounds, were also not acquiring and using new vocabulary in their writing or speaking. I had been teaching awhile and considered myself an expert teacher, but the data was not reflecting that, not formally or informally.
I began to look for ways to combat the fact that students were not achieving this goal by looking at the state standards for vocabulary instruction to understand what they should know at their current grade level, what they should already know and what they will learn in subsequent years. I also began to look at what vocabulary instruction was from a research standpoint. I wanted to know more about teaching vocabulary. I wanted to know how vocabulary knowledge fit in the science of teaching reading and I wanted to know what other teachers were doing to teach vocabulary to their students.
Teaching second grade was my favorite time because these students were moving through learning to read and for the most part were grasping decoding and blending and are able to apply those skills to reading and comprehending more challenging texts. Developmentally, students in second grade are working with skills they learned in first grade and preparing to apply those skills to content they will learn in 3 grade when teachers’ focus transitions to instruction that has students reading to learn and focusing more on comprehension. Third grade is also when students in Texas begin to take standardized test, so second grade is a good grade to have students practice using skills that will become more challenging when teachers’ focus changes.
In second grade students need to know how to use print and digital resources, use context to determine the meaning of words that are unfamiliar, identify the meaning of and use words with affixes and explain the meaning and uses of synonyms, antonyms, idioms, and homographs as well as respond to text using new vocabulary when it is appropriate. I wanted to understand how vocabulary should be taught to help students achieve these expectations.
I read studies like the one that Lynn Cohen and Katherine Bynes (2007) a professor and a classroom teacher respectively conducted. Their action research was conducted to understand which instructional procedures for teaching vocabulary support of third grade bilingual and monolingual students’ use of literacy. Their research compared two instructional approaches. One that used read-aloud trade books that had targeted vocabulary and opportunities for daily direct word learning strategies and the other was a traditional definitional approach. Their findings showed that helping students develop strong vocabulary requires more than them looking up words in the dictionary. Another article I found informative focused on the types of children I taught. Lovelace and Stewart (2009) examined the effects of systematic vocabulary instruction techniques with African American 2nd grade children with below average vocabulary skills and also to examine the role of book type in the retaining novel vocabulary words. The study took a look at the use of multicultural books on word knowledge of these children. This study resulted in those students gaining word knowledge and maintaining at least two weeks after the introduction of those new words. These findings show that there is a potential impact of vocabulary instruction for facilitating vocabulary development with these children, but that the book choice did not matter as much as the robust instruction.
A thought emerged; what would happen if I was intentional with the way I taught vocabulary? What if, I thoughtfully choose words, planned how and when they were taught and created opportunities for students to use those new words in their reading, writing, listening and speaking? What would happen if I created opportunities for students to revisit words that they were exposed to previously and helped them connect those words to other thoughts, topics, and ideas? What does robust vocabulary instruction look like? My dissertation topic was born from these thoughts. My research has taken on a life of its own and I am excited by what I have learned. I began to share what I was learning with other teachers, but I also noticed that there were some educator who were already teaching vocabulary and that was evident because their students where using new words. Not only understanding them when reading, but also in their conversations and in writing. I want to study teachers’ thoughts, ideas, and practices around teaching vocabulary. I have chosen to do my study with second grade teachers because I believe that teaching vocabulary early and effectively can prevent and/or correct the knowledge gaps that some children may come to school with.
I have always worked in the public school setting and with students from low income areas and as I studied and read more, I understood that some students may come to school with achievement gaps so it is very important for teachers to be intentional with their classroom instruction and especially with vocabulary instruction because there is a direct link to comprehension of increasingly challenging text. The gap that some students come to school with is disheartening especially when I think about the link between early vocabulary knowledge and early reading achievement (Snow, Burns & Griffin, 1998; Berne & Blackowicz, 2009).
Thank you for reading. I would love to hear your thoughts,
Pearl Garden is a doctoral candidate at Texas A&M- Commerce. Follow along as she drops "pearls' of literacy and chronicles her pursuit of her Ed. D in Supervision-Curriculum and Instruction- Elementary Education. Just know that these are the ramblings of a doc student and a lot of what you read is a first draft and will go through some rewrites.