Learning vocabulary in the early years...
Updated: Mar 31
...and some research-backed strategies.
A teaching strategy is the approach a teacher uses to teach something new to students. Teaching strategies that involve active learning – that is, when the students' brains are actively engaging with the material instead of passively listening – are the most successful strategies to enhance student learning and remembering.
Hello and welcome to the 34th edition of our fortnightly newsletter, Things in Education. Today, we write about teaching strategies in vocabulary that involve active learning – things that teachers can do in the class to make building vocabulary more than just a passive outcome of exposure to different and newer words.
Here’s a page from one of the themed storybooks that form part of the unboxED Early Learning Curriculum:
The story is about a sister and brother who learn the importance of sharing. It’s a short and sweet story with simple, relatable characters and events, as well as age-appropriate vocabulary.
However, imagine a child whose first language is not English and who doesn’t know the meaning of the pronoun mine. Would that child understand what is happening on this page?
Several studies have shown that a reader must know the meaning of at least 90 to 95% of words in a piece of text in order to comprehend it. The page above has 17 different words. If a child doesn’t understand even one – and that too a key word for the page – comprehending what is written on that page becomes very difficult.
So, it is extremely important to think about which words are key to comprehending a text and which words children may not know, and planning vocabulary instruction accordingly.
What strategies can we use to teach vocabulary effectively to our early learners? To understand this, let’s first explore what strategies are traditionally used and why they don’t work.
Traditional Vocabulary Teaching Strategies
Displaying difficult words on Word Walls: This is a common strategy used in many classrooms. A wall is selected as the Word Wall, where the teacher displays some new vocabulary words either before of after introducing the meanings of all the words. The class keeps referring to the Word Wall as the unit progresses. The underlying principle is that the more children look at these words, the more likely it is that they will remember their meaning and use them in writing. And we partly agree – being surrounded by these words is definitely a good first step, but this is not enough. Studies have shown that for a new word to become a part of our regular vocabulary, we must be exposed to it at least 12 times, in different ways. A Word Wall shows children the word, but it does not do much more.
Giving children a definition: Teaching new words through their definitions is a very common strategy. The teacher may simply tell children the definition of the word, may ask children to create vocabulary tables in their notebooks and copy the definitions off the board, and even model how to refer to a dictionary to find out the meaning of a new word, which is a very valuable strategy. However, being told or even knowing the definition is not the same as understanding the meaning. Definitions very often are even more difficult than the word. The popular website wordsmyth.net gives the following definition of mine in its Beginner’s Dictionary: the one or ones that belong to me; a possessive form of “I.” The meaning of many words, especially in the early years, cannot be understood through their definitions, even when we simplify dictionary definitions for our children.
Conducting vocabulary drills: A vocabulary drill may take many forms, but its underlying principle remains the same – memorisation and repetition. We ask children to memorise lists of new words, their spellings and their meanings. Then, we conduct dictation tests, quizzes and tests to check if children are able to spell the new word and write its meaning or match it to its meaning. However, such drills test only memorisation and not understanding. Cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham has famously used the example of a middle-school child who wrote the following definition of the equator: ‘A menagerie lion running around the Earth through Africa.’ Does this child really understand what the equator is?
Enhanced Vocabulary Teaching Strategies
We can enhance traditional vocabulary teaching strategies by combining them with cutting-edge strategies backed by studies and research that have shown great gains in vocabulary learning.
Rich oral conversations: Children learn how to understand and speak a language much before they learn to read it. Think about toddlers who can understand the home language and begin to have conversations with those around them much, much before they start formal school education. Oral language skills are the foundation of reading and writing skills. So, it is important to build children’s oral language skills – and in this case, their oral vocabulary skills. We can do this by regularly having conversations with children about a variety of topics – right from how we feel and what we did the previous day to how plants grow and what story characters remind us of. The key here is to use words that are difficult to read and that children will not come across in their storybooks. The more they hear these words in conversation, the more they understand and use them. This vocabulary teaching strategy can be structured and built into your weekly or monthly teaching plan by referring to lists of Tier 2 words for your grade level. Tier 2 words are more sophisticated forms of simple words that children are already familiar with, such as wonderful instead of good or observe instead of see. Identify 10-15 words to introduce every month, plan conversations and activities around them, and ensure that you use them in oral conversations regularly. You can supplement this by displaying these words on the Word Wall.
Repeated exposure in different ways: For a new word to become a part of our regular vocabulary, we must be exposed to it at least 12 times, in different ways. This means that simply doing 1 or 2 exercises to learn new vocabulary words is not enough. Children must get the opportunity to read, write, speak or use a word at least 12 times. For example, imagine that a child has just come across the word mutter for the first time in a conversation or a story. A few different ways in which the child can be exposed to the word are: 1) receiving an explicit explanation of the meaning (when we speak softly and in a way that it is difficult to understand us!) 2) acting out how they mutter 3) sharing an example of a time that they muttered something 4) using the word to describe how a character in a movie is speaking 5) reading the word again in a different story. In our blog on Building Children’s Vocabulary at Home, we wrote about the game Word Wizard and how that can be used to plan for repeated exposure to new words in different ways. This game can easily be adapted to a preschool setting as well.
Connecting words: Teaching children about the rich relationships between words helps them process the words deeply. Children need to understand that some words mean the same thing (scared and afraid), some words mean similar things (scared and terrified), and some words mean the opposite of each other (scared and brave). They need to understand that some words tell us names, some tell us about actions, and some describe things. In the early years, this can be as simple as asking students to fill in a word map with these elements. For example, if a child learns the word huge, they can fill in a word map that requires them to draw something huge, draw something big, and draw something small. Then, they can write the names of two objects and two animals that are huge. Such activities help them think deeply about what the word huge means in relation to other words and to the world around them.
The best way to approach vocabulary learning is to go wide and go deep, ensuring that students have many authentic opportunities to read, write and use new words in conversation.
Read about some common misconceptions about vocabulary learning in this blog by the Education Endowment Foundation.
Read this article about choosing words to teach in this article by Reading Rockets.
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