by Tanya S. Wright
Michigan State University
What does new research tell us about vocabulary instruction, especially at the K–2 level? Are there ways we should be re-envisioning vocabulary in light of the CCSS?
The Common Core State Standards ratchet up vocabulary demands for K–2 by calling for children to read and be read to from informational texts from the start of school. While academic vocabulary knowledge is critical for comprehension more broadly (Biemiller, 2006; Nagy & Townsend, 2012), the vocabulary found in informational texts may create different challenges for young readers compared to vocabulary found in fiction (Hiebert & Cervetti, 2012).New vocabulary words in informational texts often represent new concepts for young children. Think about the challenge of explaining the word ecosystem to first graders who are listening to a book about forests compared to explaining a sophisticated word for a known concept such as injured means “hurt.” Further, informational text vocabulary may have specialized meanings in particular subject areas. "Front" has a different meaning in a book about weather compared to everyday situations such as being in front when you are lining up for recess. This can be especially confusing if children try to understand an informational text with the everyday meaning in mind. The same vocabulary word may be repeated more frequently within an informational text compared to challenging words that occur in fiction. So, a confusing word meaning can cause comprehension problems again and again in the same book.
While it is clear that supporting children’s vocabulary development is more important than ever, in our recent study in 55 kindergarten classrooms we found very limited attention to vocabulary development (Wright & Neuman, in press). Also, we found minimal time spent on activities that support children’s engagement with the type of vocabulary needed for informational text comprehension: on average less than 2 minutes per day spent reading aloud from informational text, 2 minutes per day of science and only 1 minute per day of social studies.
What can teachers do to support vocabulary learning in K–2 classrooms? Most importantly, teachers should engage in activities that promote vocabulary development such as reading aloud from informational text as well as fiction, building word and world knowledge through content area learning, and facilitating discussions using challenging vocabulary (Neuman & Wright, 2013). In addition, here are some of the important steps in teaching vocabulary explicitly:
- Select vocabulary to teach each week from read alouds and also from content you are teaching. Examine your science, social studies, and mathematics curricula for vocabulary to support informational text comprehension.
- Explain word meanings to children during reading using child-friendly definitions.
- Help children to make connections by discussing the ways that new vocabulary relate to one another and to children’s existing knowledge (e.g., in an informational book about plants, discuss that embryo and cotyledon are both parts of a seed or that evergreen and deciduous are two categories of plants). (Neuman, Newman, & Dwyer, 2011; Silverman, Proctor, Harring, Dowle, Mitchell, & Meyer, 2014).
- Create opportunities for children to practice using new vocabulary in meaningful contexts (e.g., during a science exploration or during discussion of a read aloud).
- Review, review, review. Children learn word meanings over time, strengthening their knowledge each time a word is encountered (Biemiller & Boote, 2006). Read the same book multiple times or read a set of books on the same topic to provide repeated opportunities for children to encounter new vocabulary.
- Monitor children’s progress. Watch and listen to see if children are able to use new words that have been taught.
For more on this topic, see:
Wright, T. S. (in press). From potential to reality: Content-rich vocabulary and informational text. The Reading Teacher.
Biemiller, A. (2006). Vocabulary development and instruction: A prerequisite for school learning. In D. K. Dickinson & S. B. Neuman (Eds.), Handbook of early literacy research (Vol. 2) (pp. 41-51). New York: Guilford Press.
Biemiller, A., & Boote, C. (2006). An effective method for building meaning vocabulary in primary grades. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98, 44-62.
Hiebert, E.H., & Cervetti, G.N. (2012). What differences in narrative and informational texts mean for learning and instruction of vocabulary. In E. J. Kame’enui & J. F. Baumann (eds). Vocabulary instruction: Research to practice (2nd Ed) (p. 322-344). New York: Guilford.
Nagy, W., & Townsend, D. (2012). Words as tools: Learning academic vocabulary as language acquisition. Reading Research Quarterly, 47, 91-108.
Neuman, S. B., Newman, E. H., & Dwyer, J. (2011). Educational effects of a vocabulary intervention on preschoolers' word knowledge and conceptual development: A cluster‐randomized trial. Reading Research Quarterly, 46, 249-272.
Neuman, S. B. & Wright, T. S. (2013). All about words: Increasing vocabulary in the Common Core classroom, PreK-2. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Silverman, R. D., Proctor, C. P., Harring, J. R., Doyle, B., Mitchell, M. A., & Meyer, A. G. (2014). Teachers' instruction and students' vocabulary and comprehension: An exploratory study with English monolingual and Spanish–English bilingual students in Grades 3–5. Reading Research Quarterly, 49, 31-60.
Wright, T. S., & Neuman, S. B. (in press). Paucity and disparity in kindergarten oral vocabulary instruction. Journal of Literacy Research.
This article is from the International Reading Association’s Literacy Research Panel. Read more about the LRP Blog here. Reader response is welcomed. E-mail your comments to LRP@reading.org