Written by Tanya S. Wright, author of A Teacher’s Guide to Vocabulary Development Across the Day: Grades K-3
When I think about supporting children’s vocabulary development (learning new word meanings), in grades K-3, I picture children sitting on a classroom rug discussing words from a read aloud text or at tables engaged in a science investigation talking about what they have figured out. But in many places, these scenes are just not the reality right now. Many young children are learning in remote online environments, and it can be challenging to figure out how to create these rich opportunities to talk and use words without the in-person classroom community.
As we think about supporting vocabulary during remote teaching, it’s helpful to start with some big ideas about how people learn new vocabulary words (more about these ideas in Chapter 2 of my new book, A Teacher’s Guide to Vocabulary Development Across the Day: Grades K-3) and then to think about how to apply these ideas in remote teaching settings:
Big idea #1. We learn new words when we learn new things.
Just think about all of the new words young children have learned as we have experienced the COVID-19 pandemic: pandemic, virus, quarantine, social-distancing, synchronous, and asynchronous. Also, when we learn new things, we often learn new meanings for words we already know. For example, if you are one of the many people who took up baking last spring, you may have learned the baking-related meaning for proofing (when dough is allowed to rest and rise) that has nothing to do with re-reading your work and checking for spelling errors. What can we do during remote learning to apply this idea?
- Invite children to share what they are learning in their homes and communities. Even when they are not in school, children are learning, and this includes lots of fantastic new vocabulary. Invite children to share new things that they are learning about the world. For example, my daughter has been playing (maybe too much) Minecraft, but as she plays, we have been able to discuss interesting words like bedrock, cobblestone, obsidian, sandstone, portal, nether, smelt, sheer, hoe, and trident.
- Make sure that there are lots of opportunities for children to learn new things and the associated vocabulary at school, even during remote learning. It is just not okay to say that children will no longer have opportunities to learn science or social studies because there is no time for this in online school. Frankly, this stance is harmful for children because they want and need to learn about their world. And, limited content area learning is actually harmful for children’s language and literacy development too (read more about this in the book as well)! So, overall, we need to find ways to include learning across content areas during remote school.
Big idea #2. We need repeated exposure to words in meaningful contexts.
If I gave you a list of words and definitions to memorize, you might be able to remember them for a few days, but in the long run, you’d have difficulty using these words as you speak or write, and you may not remember them long enough to help you read or understand when someone uses the word. But, if a new word was brought up in a way that was meaningful and useful to you (see my pandemic Minecraft, and baking examples above), you would be more likely to remember and use this word. What can we do during remote learning to apply this idea?
- Please don’t make children memorize words out of context! Even though remote learning presents challenges, we don’t want to slide into vocabulary teaching that is unlikely to actually help children learn and retain new word and the ideas that these words represent. If we don’t think that lectures with PowerPoint slides, worksheets, or writing out lists is effective pedagogy for supporting children’s vocabulary development during in-person instruction, then we should not transition to these techniques just because instruction has moved online.
- Teach words during meaningful learning experiences, such as read alouds of both literature and informational text and across all other content areas including science, social studies, math, and the arts. Select words to teach that will help children to share their thinking about the ideas they are learning, provide children with information about the meaning of new words using language or images that children already understand, and invite children to use these new words as speakers and writers. For example, if first graders are figuring out where the sun, moon, and stars appear in the sky over time, they can learn that observe means to looking closely at something or to carefully watch what happens. Then they can observe the sky from their homes during the day and at night and draw what they see.
Big idea #3. We learn words when we have opportunities for active processing.
Active processing means that children have opportunities to think about the meanings of new words and to use new words in meaningful ways. This really does require discussion and interaction which can be very challenging in the remote learning environment. What can we do during remote learning to apply this idea?
- Use synchronous meeting times for discussions. Synchronous meetings times are precious! So, consider what can be accomplished asynchronously and what the best uses of synchronous times can be. For example, I think that there are lots of ways to give children information or to allow children to discover new ideas that are asynchronous. We can prerecord a mini-lesson video to share information and to introduce related vocabulary with pictures, images or actions. We can invite children to explore in their own homes and neighborhoods (e.g., by observing the sky). These things can happen asynchronously. But, after children engage in these asynchronous learning opportunities, we need to use synchronous times for discussions to help children figure things out collaboratively and synthesize ideas, including opportunities to use new vocabulary they have learned.
- During synchronous times, use small groups or breakout groups to support children to use new words as they share their ideas. Use new vocabulary in your questions and encourage children to use these words as they express their ideas. For example, after children draw the sky outside their home at night and during the day, we might ask them to show this work to a small group of friends and use the sentence stem: “I observed _____ during the day, and I observed _____ at night.” After children have shared their ideas, we can ask the group to think about open-ended questions: “What would happen if you observed the sky from a different place? Would your picture look the same or different? Why?”
This is a challenging time for teachers and families, but young children remain excited to learn about and discuss new ideas! Let’s keep working together to support children’s vocabulary development so that they can use their words to read, write, speak, listen, and learn about the world!
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.
"Children are more likely to learn when they can actively engage with a word and its meaning rather than just passively receiving information from the teacher.”—Tanya Wright