Young children love to learn and use new words. How do we tap into this natural curiosity and excitement to support vocabulary development?
Today on the podcast we're joined by Tanya Wright, author of A Teacher's Guide to Vocabulary Development Across the Day, the newest addition to The Classroom Essentials Series. We're also joined by series editor Katie Wood Ray.
Tanya and Katie talk about why it's important to take a deliberate approach to vocabulary instruction that spans throughout the day, and not just in isolated units.
A transcript of this episode is available below.
Katie: Good afternoon, Tanya. I'm so excited to talk to you about your new book. It's the next installation in the classroom essential series. It'll be out in October. A Teacher's Guide to Supporting Vocabulary Development Across the Day. So congratulations, first of all, on having finished it. And we're so excited to have you be a part of the Heinemann family. You've written lots of other things and other books, but this is your first Heinemann book. So congratulations.
Tanya: Thank you. It's been lots of fun so far working with you on the book, and I'm so excited that it's going to come out.
Katie: I am too. I actually can't wait. It's beautiful too. The designs are gorgeous. They support the content so well, I'm really excited.
Tanya: I love how it looks. How it looks really feels to me how I hope that conversations feel, in classrooms between teachers and kids.
Katie: Well, it's interesting that you say that because that's one of the first things I wanted to talk about. I took a walk this weekend with my three and a half year old nephew and my sister was with me too. And I was just thinking about, it's such a joyful time right now in his development. And it's really all... So much of it is about words. His approximations are so wonderful and he's leaning in to trying to understand what things mean. He's interested in words. He ask us what we mean by things. And it's just so joyful. And I was thinking about your book and that's really the stance that you bring to this work, is clearly the stance of the book. And just, that as adults, we should both marvel at the learning children are doing and also just find joyful ways to support them in it. And just curious about how you came to that stance?
Tanya: Well, I think like you said, children love to communicate. They need lots of words to communicate. Words help them describe their world. Words help them to share their learning and their ideas, and they really want to do that. So I think we should get excited about it. I think when we think about vocabulary as a list of flashcards or something like that, that we have to cover. That's not really how words are used or how they feel in the world. In real life, we use words to help us communicate. To help us read, write, speak, listen, and learn. And that's how I think we should think about vocabulary for kids and in our classrooms and in our families, in our homes.
Katie: I was thinking about this too. I mean, you and I've been working on this project for a couple of years now, and I don't think I've ever asked you this, but I'm curious about how vocabulary became your lane as a researcher? How did you get... I know you started out as a kindergarten teacher and then when you became a researcher, how is it that vocabulary became the thing that, that you wanted to study?
Tanya: I have to say I've always loved words. I've always loved to write. And I've always liked to think about the best words to communicate with. But I honestly don't think I was the greatest vocabulary teacher when I taught kindergarten. I don't think I was always aware of how important it was unless it led to misconceptions for kids. So I was aware of it when kids were confused, but I wasn't necessarily aware of that as an all the time thing that I could help them with and help to focus on. And then when I got to study more about literacy and reading development, I really learned a lot about how important words are for helping kids to both read and write and communicate.
And it just became really clear to me that this is such an important area to focus on, to support kids literacy development, but also the neglected area often in classrooms. And I don't think that's anybody's fault or anybody's trying to do a bad job. I just think sometimes with younger kids, we're not necessarily focusing on that, because we have so much other stuff to focus on. But I think once we do pay attention to it, there are lots of opportunities to build vocabulary across the day, as part of the work and the learning that we're already doing with kids.
Katie: And I know, I was rereading some of the book this morning ahead of talking to you. And I was reading again about a couple of studies actually that you talk about in there, that really looked at vocabulary instruction in the early grades and found that a lot of it really didn't make that much difference in kids vocabulary trajectory and how much they were learning and how that was a catalyst for you too, I guess, in your own research. Was some of it just a recognition that what we are doing, isn't working?
Tanya: So when I went back to graduate school, I obviously had to do a dissertation to get my doctorate. And so what I decided to do for my dissertation is go and visit a bunch of kindergarten classrooms all around a large Midwestern state that you could probably guess which one it is, if you look up where I live. And we visited 55 different classrooms for 660 hours. And what we did, is try to find vocabulary instruction happening in those classrooms.
And it turns out we didn't find even one single lesson that focused on vocabulary across all those hours. But what we did find were teachers explaining words to kids across the day. And especially in certain parts of the day, like during read alouds of literature and informational text, during science and during social studies.
And that's not really surprising because those are really big learning times when new ideas from books, new ideas from content area learning are coming into the day. All of this made me think a lot about what's happening in classrooms and how we can put more emphasis on vocabulary to make sure that kids do have some lessons. For example, some lessons around what to do when they get to a word that they don't understand. What could they try as an independent reader? How can they use words in their writing, interesting words, right?
These seem really important, but also to really think about vocabulary across the day and to take advantage of the opportunities kids have to learn when they are participating in read alouds or science and social studies, learning or math or the arts, right? There's so many wonderful opportunities to learn new words when we learn new things and taking a look in classrooms really helped me to see those opportunities.
Katie: I think one of the things that made me reach out to you the very first time I did, years ago about writing for teachers for Heinemann, was because I noticed that you did such a great job of, for lack of a better word, translating research into practice, and really being clear about the practical implications of what research shows and that just shines through in this book. And it made me wonder a little bit too, about how the things that you have chosen to study, like you just described. Whether they start out as questions of practice that you're then researching, how do you decide which path to go down next and what you're going to study?
Tanya: For me, it always starts with practice. What I'm really interested in, is the interactions between teachers and children and children and children in classrooms, and how those support kids literacy development. So everything about my work always comes from that place of wanting to help teachers, to really think about how to get the most out of the time they have with kids and how to really help kids to grow as literacy learners. That's what I'm passionate about. I always say, when I'm going to think about, if I should do a project or do a research study, I say to myself, "Is this going to help kids become better reader, writers, speakers, listeners?" And if the answer is yes, then I get super excited about the project or the study. And if the answer is no, it's probably not the right thing for me to work on.
Katie: Well, let me just say, I think that really shines through in all your work and all your contributions, and I really appreciate it. Which is why too I'm so glad you're part of this great new team that's going to be editing, The Reading Teacher. Congratulations on that too.
Tanya: Thank you very much. And I would love teachers who are part of the Heinemann audience and other authors from Heinemann, to submit articles to The Reading Teacher or teaching tips. If you just want it to be something brief that you've really worked on in your classroom, that would be so wonderful, because what The Reading Teacher does, is really a space for researchers and teachers and literacy coaches and others involved in literacy education, to communicate. So researchers can share their ideas and teachers can share their ideas in this space. And that's really just so exciting to me. One thing we're going to be doing that's new is, we're going to have a teacher advisory board who can help us to read articles to make sure that every single article that we publish feels useful and meaningful to teachers and has some practical value in the classroom.
So if any of you want to do that, we are looking for volunteers who want to help us with that to make sure that we're really conveying research in ways that are useful to educators in their classrooms on Monday morning.
Katie: I think this Classroom Essentials book is going to serve as a great mentor text for how to really tease out practice from research. And of course all the time you spend in classrooms is huge part of that as well. But it really, you've just done such a brilliant job of helping look at the practice that comes out of that. So I appreciate that so much. One of the things that I really have been struck with working with you on this, is this idea that you letting go of thinking of vocabulary as this little thing you do, let's do 10 minutes of word study or whatever.
And instead thinking of it across the day, something that's infused into everything you do. And yeah, the fact that it's infused, it's not just responsive teaching. It's very planful and very intentional. So it's not like you just wait for an opportunity. You're really thinking about it. And you're anticipating what the teaching is going to sound like, what it's going to look like.
And I just wondered if you could maybe talk a little about the importance of that? Because some people might think that all you really need to do is talk in intelligent ways to kids and they'll pick it up, right? They'll pick it up method, but this is really about a lot more than that.
Tanya: So I think of course, it's wonderful to talk to children using big words, and that's never going to harm kids. And it's always an important thing to do. And if they ask about words, we always want to discuss words with children. But on the other hand, if we are going to agree that vocabulary is really important for reading, writing, speaking, listening, and learning, we also have to make sure that we're taking advantage of opportunities to ensure that all children learn the words they're going to need for school. So across all the content areas, as kids are learning new things, there are typically words associated with that content.
And we really want to make sure that all kids learn the words they're going to need, to participate in the learning of the classroom. And if we just leave it up to chance, then that learning is going to be an equitable in our classrooms, right? Some children might happen to pick it up. Some might not. And I really am one who thinks that if we say vocabulary is important, we need to make an effort to be planful and really ensure that kids are developing the vocabulary they need, to participate in school, but also to be readers, writers, learners in the long-term.
Katie: So now I guess we need to go there. When we were working on this book, we never dreamed that schooling would look like it does at this moment. We had turned the manuscript in before March of 2020, and yet here we are, and everyone has spent the last eight months, six months adapting to this new environment. Can you just talk a little bit about how you feel the content of the book is applicable, whether you're teaching in a physical classroom with kids or you're teaching online? I'm sure you've been asked to do some thinking about that in your professional development work already.
Tanya: So I think the most important thing to remember is that, good teaching is good teaching, no matter what modality we're teaching in. So if we think it's important for kids, they learn vocabulary and that the way they learn it is through meaningful experiences where those words are part of content area learning or where those words are part of read alouds, and we're going to discuss what they mean in books. Then those are the things we have to figure out how to keep doing across modalities. I keep saying to people, "If you wouldn't do it to kids in person school, please don't do it to them online." Right? So if you wouldn't stand up in the class and do a PowerPoint presentation on vocabulary in front of your kindergarten class, normally because you don't think that's developmentally appropriate, please don't do that in the online environment. And the same is true about what you would do, right? So if we think interactive read alouds are the thing that's going to help kids, we're going to have to figure out ways to interact.
Whether we have all of us in the classroom wearing masks or some of the children in the classroom, or if we're in an online environment. And that includes having some priorities. So really thinking about which things need to happen, synchronously. Well, discussions of texts probably need to happen synchronously for young kids. They can't type in a chat room, for example, efficiently to get their ideas out. So that's something we're going to have to make time for. Or if we want to send kids off to do a science project at home, we're going to have to make some time to come back and discuss what they've learned. And those are the times where we can still share vocabulary words. And we can ask kids to use those as they describe what they're doing. And those are some authentic ways or ways that align with the book to continue with this work.
So overall, I think most of it can still happen in whichever modality we're working on, but we still have to plan for it. And we can't let vocabulary go by the wayside, or I hope we won't, just because it's challenging to figure out new modalities to teach in.
Katie: I was really, as I was looking back through it this morning, I was really struck by what I know of online teaching. I haven't had to do any of it, but I certainly know a lot about what people are doing. And it really struck me as I don't... I would be doing all these same things just in a, as you said, in a different modality in a different way, but it makes perfect sense. It's interesting too. This was another thing I noticed spending some time with my nephew, is the way in which... I mean, you say again and again, and again, children learn new words when they learn new things and some of the vocabulary he's learning connected to a pandemic at three and a half is pretty interesting. Not words I had any reason to learn at his age.
Tanya: I'm always amazed at the vocabulary about online teaching, that kids now have, right? So children are talking about their asynchronous instruction and their synchronous instruction. And I've actually had a few conversations with kids about what that means and what the A, before asynchronous actually does to the word. So those are the conversations that we can have really around anything new that we learned. And the other thing that I've been thinking a lot about, is that kids are always learning. So even if they're not in school, they're learning. They're learning from their experiences, and their families and their communities. And the wonderful thing that we can do is take advantage of those experiences and help kids to share them and have the vocabulary, have the words to share what's going on in their lives.
And for me, that's ultimately what's important, right? That kids can share their ideas through oral language. They can read new ideas, they can write their ideas and they have the best possible words to do that with.
Katie: Just the last thing I'd like to ask you, Tanya. The book is in addition to being beautiful, which we've already talked about, is wonderfully just practical and accessible. I know what it's like to have a book coming out into the world and you just have hopes for it, right? You dream of the possibilities that this book, for what it can be in the world. And I'm just wondering what some of your hopes are for your Classroom Essentials book?
Tanya: Well, I definitely hope that lots of teachers will choose to read the book. And I hope what they'll take from the book is just reframing how vocabulary is thought about in elementary classrooms. Really seeing how important it can be, but also seeing how we can plan for it across what we do, to make sure that kids are learning word meanings. And this is just so important in the long-term, because as they read more and more complex texts, they're going to be more and more interesting in challenging vocabulary. So if we help kids to use great words in their oral language, that's going to help them when that word is in a text that they're going to read. So I hope everyone will get as excited about vocabulary as I am. I hope teachers will be inspired to think about vocabulary and planning all of their units and where are some opportunities to teach kids fantastic new words.
And I hope that that makes kids in their classrooms excited about words. I find that when we teach kids words, they want to use them. One of the greatest things I saw when I first started doing this, was kids were learning about pets in a preschool classroom. And I saw kids playing with little plastic animals. And one said to the other, "This animal is ferocious." And I thought, "Wow, that's really wonderful," because they had been learning that we don't choose pets that are ferocious animals. And I thought, "Yes, that's what we want." Right? We want kids to take these words, apply them, use them to convey meaning in their everyday lives and just get excited.
Katie: I can't imagine that it won't do all those things in the world, especially once people start reading it and talking about it, because it's a lovely, gorgeous, smart book, and I'm very excited. So good luck, and thanks for chatting with me today.
Tanya: Thank you
Tanya 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.
For many years as the author of bestselling Heinemann books such as About the Authors, Study Driven, Already Ready, and In Pictures and In Words, and as a member of Heinemann’s Professional Development Services, Katie Wood Ray gave teachers resources and PD that transformed writing instruction and helped children discover a lifelong love of writing.
In 2014, Katie “moved to the other side of the desk” and joined the dynamic team of editors at Heinemann where she works closely with authors to craft powerful professional books on a range of literacy topics. Katie is also the series editor for the new Classroom Essentials books from Heinemann. Tasked with bringing foundational, progressive practices to a new generation of teachers, Katie works to ensure that the sharp focus and enhanced design of each book best serve the content. She also teamed up with her longtime collaborator, Lisa Cleaveland, to write one of the first books in the series, A Teacher’s Guide to Getting Started with Beginning Writers.
You can find her on Twitter at @KatieWoodRay