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New Ways to Think About Vocabulary Instruction

New Ways to Think About Vocabulary Instruction

The following was adapted from A Teacher’s Guide to Vocabulary Development Across the Day by Tanya S. Wright

One of the joys of being a parent or teacher of young children is hearing them use new words to communicate. Children’s mispronunciations and misinterpretations often lead to delightful stories that become family lore. One of my family’s favorites happened when my oldest daughter was five years old. I found her at bedtime lying on her front with her knees curled under her body in what looked like child’s pose. When I suggested that she did not look like she was in a comfortable position for actually falling asleep, she told me, “I’m a turtle, and I’m not trying to sleep, Mommy. I’m being a noc-turtle.” Once I finished trying not to laugh, I realized that she had been watching a TV show about nocturnal animals earlier that day. While she clearly had some misunderstandings about this new word, based on how it was pronounced and her prior knowledge about turtles, she tried immediately to use and apply this new word, nocturnal, in a way that pertained to her own life.

Download a sample from A Teacher’s Guide to Vocabulary Development Across the  Day. 
We are similarly delighted when children learn and use new words at school. A kindergarten class had been learning the names of different types of clouds and how they predict different weather conditions. One day after school as they waited for the bus, the principal overheard the children debating whether the clouds in the sky were cumulus or cumulonimbus! They were concerned that if the clouds were cumulonimbus clouds (i.e., storm clouds), then their baseball practice would be canceled. The children were actively applying both the new ideas—and the words they had learned to describe these ideas—to important events in their own lives. Young children love to learn and use new words as they discuss, read about, and write about ideas, as they learn to describe and explain their world, and as they play.

We can support young children’s vocabulary development in ways that are meaningful, motivating, engaging, and develop-mentally appropriate.

Vocabulary instruction in the early grades of school can support this type of useful and meaningful word learning for young children. The first thing we need to do is think about what we mean by the term vocabulary. Sometimes, teachers use the term vocabulary to mean “sight word vocabulary” or words that students recognize automatically as they read. I advocate for a focus on teaching word meanings and not on automatic word recognition. After all, young children know the meanings of lots of words in oral language that they are not yet able to read.

Let’s think for a moment about what you remember about learning vocabulary when you were in school. What experiences did you have? No matter how many times I ask this question to different groups of adults, responses typically include “traumatic” experiences like these:

  • Each week, I had to look up a list of words in the dictionary and write out the definitions.

  • I had to memorize the meanings of words using flashcards as part of test preparation.

  • Each week, I had to write a sentence for each word on my vocabulary list.

We all had experiences like these, and in addition to being unpleasant, this out-of- context, drill-oriented instruction is unlikely to support text comprehension or being able to use the word in writing or speaking. We do not want to spend precious instructional time drilling primary-grade students on vocabulary, of course, but the vocabulary instruction that we all experienced (typically in older grades) may be the only way we know to teach vocabulary and why we avoid it in our K–3 classrooms.

So, take a breath, and try to let go of whatever version of the list on the previous page was done to you as a student. We can support young children’s vocabulary development in ways that are meaningful, motivating, engaging, and develop-mentally appropriate. We can shift the focus from memorizing word meanings for the sake of memorizing them, to supporting young children as they learn new words they can really use—to discuss whether or not there will be baseball practice after school; to understand, learn from, and enjoy challenging texts that they are excited to read; to be able to write about the breathtaking scenery on their vacation or a courageous superhero rather than a fun trip or a good guy.

Recent studies of vocabulary instruction in the early years of school have shown that a year of schooling is unlikely to impact children’s vocabulary learning trajectory at all (Christian et al. 2000; Skibbe et al. 2011)! This finding made me wonder how this could possibly be, so my colleague Susan Neuman and I followed up with several studies of curriculum and instruction including observing for 660 hours in fifty-five kindergarten classrooms as well as studying the most commonly used English language arts (ELA) core curriculum materials (Wright and Neuman 2013, 2014). Here is what we found:

  • Teachers rarely provided planned vocabulary instruction. They typically explained word meanings to children when they thought children did not understand, but they only explained words once, in the teachable moment. This meant that children had only one exposure to new words and no opportunities at all to use or apply these words. While this probably helped children to comprehend the text or learning in the moment, children would be unlikely to retain very much information about these words from this type of instruction.
  • Teachers were more likely to explain word meanings to children in teachable moments when they taught more affluent student populations. Teachers were least likely to explain words when they taught in schools where more than 50 percent of children received free and reduced lunch. So, even teachable moment vocabulary supports were inequitably distributed from classroom to classroom.
  • When teachers used a core reading curriculum, this made no difference at all to the teachable-moments-only vocabulary instruction that we observed. This was surprising, so we examined core curriculum materials to try to understand their supports for vocabulary instruction. We found that these materials provided teachers with a list of vocabulary to teach each week (although the number of words ranged greatly across curricula from two to twenty), a definition, and an example sentence to use when introducing the word meaning to children. But, they rarely supported teachers in doing more than introducing word meanings. Also, it was not always clear how the selected words related to ongoing learning in the classroom.

What we learned from these studies is that if we want to support children’s vocabulary development, we are going to need to do something very different. We cannot teach one word per day or five words per week or only explain word meanings coincidentally when they come up. If we want to make a difference, we have to be intentional and make plans to support children to learn word meanings across all parts of the school day.


• • •

Vocab Dev Small Book Cover

For more on how to seamlessly blend vocabulary instruction throughout your practice, see A Teacher’s Guide to Vocabulary Development Across the Day by Tanya S. Wright at Heinemann.com.

Download a sample from A Teacher’s Guide to Vocabulary Development Across the  Day. 

To learn more about what vocabulary instruction can look like in action, watch this video.

tanyawrightTanya Wright is an Associate Professor of Language and Literacy in the Department of Teacher Education at Michigan State University. She is a former kindergarten teacher whose research and teaching focus on curriculum and instruction in language and literacy during the early childhood and elementary years. Tanya’s research examines instructional practices that promote oral language, vocabulary, and knowledge development for young children.

Find Tanya on Twitter at @TanyaSWright.



Topics: Tanya S. Wright, Vocabulary Development Across the Day, a Teacher's Guide to Vocabulary Development

Date Published: 10/28/20

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