Why is Building Vocabulary important?

Words help to shape a child’s identity and experiences, and they are the mechanism with which they express themselves. Children bring a rich repertoire of words with them as they enter our classrooms, words that come from their families, experiences, cultures, communities, and languages. By affirming the words children already know and utilizing this bank of words in the classroom, we honor the words that have already shaped who they are. This helps us understand vocabulary learning as additive. We are adding onto children’s banks of words when we are exposing them to, and teaching, words that may be less commonly used in speaking and more prevalent in texts. The overall difference in the number of words in a children’s vocabulary is one key factor in the equation of academic success. The more words they know, the better they can express themselves and realize their full capabilities as readers and writers.

What is Vocabulary?

While there is no dispute over what constitutes a word, there is some differing opinion on what words we should be focusing on during school time instruction. Beck and McKeown have coined the “3 Tier” system in their book Bringing Words to Life. A word’s frequency of use, complexity, and meaning determines which tier it will fall into. While Beck and McKeown classified words with native English speakers in mind, Dr. Margarita Calderón utilized the concept of language tiers to align the needs of English Language Learners in her article, “Effective Instruction for English Learners.”

Tier 1

For native English speakers, Tier 1 words are “everyday” words—words that typically appear in oral conversations such that children are exposed to them at high frequencies from a very early age. These everyday words don’t usually require direct instruction. Children pick them up because they are used in casual conversation and can also be heard frequently in simple books. Tier 1 words include basic nouns, verbs, adjectives, and prepositions such as bed, go, eat, brother, blue, and sad.

For English Language Learners, these are words that they typically know the concept of in their primary language but may not know the label or word in English. Our vocabulary instruction must explicitly teach the differences between school English and children’s home languages. Charity-Hudley, co-author of Understanding English Language Variations in U.S. Schools, explains:

“School English, both written and spoken, tends to use vocabulary items that are more literary than colloquial, such as entrance rather than door… beginning rather than start. Indeed, from elementary school spelling tests to vocabulary questions on standardized tests… cultural indicators suggest that to be educated in our society is to have a big vocabulary. Yet students may not have been taught explicitly about contrasts in vocabulary words… It is therefore important to instruct students wherever possible as to differences between academic terms and colloquial terms for the same concepts.” (p. 26)

Other Tier 1 words are simple cognates. Cognates are words in two languages that share a similar meaning, spelling, and pronunciation (like family/familia). These words may not require instruction to learn their meaning because children may know the word meanings in their primary language.

Tier 2

Tier 2 are the words that are important to teach explicitly and in context. For native English speakers these are words that:

  • Are characteristic of written text and are found less frequently in daily conversations
  • Are found across a variety of domains and different types of literature
  • And are important for reading comprehension and descriptive writing

Tier 2 words include descriptive nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and prepositions such as rush, devour, forlorn, and considerably.

For English Language Learners Tier 2 words can also include:

  • High-frequency words in the children’s readers or listening comprehension texts
  • Words frequently found in decodable books, such as huge or saw, that are not easily decodable
  • Words with multiple meanings, such as push, cold, or ring
  • Words typically used in oral or written instructions such as describe, clarify, identify, or label

Tier 3

For all of our children, Tier 3 words are low frequency, context-specific vocabulary. These are words that are found in specific domains such as academic subjects like history, science, or math. Some examples include isthmus, divisor, photosynthesis, and acrylic.

Words associated with hobbies, sports, and occupations can also be Tier 3 words. Some examples include skein, bogey, and chiropractor. They are important to teach as part of the content or subject area you are studying.

Finally, in addition to the three tiers of vocabulary, we need to teach phrases that may be new to children or use different meanings of known words. These phrases are often figurative language, like the idiom “it’s raining cats and dogs” or “catch a break.”

With these tiers of words in mind, you can begin to determine which words should be at the center of your instruction.

How Do We Teach Vocabulary

Let’s look for a moment at the ways vocabulary has historically been taught. The standard approach is to introduce a list of words to children on Monday. Children study definitions of the words, craft sentences using the words, and then on Friday take the vocabulary test. Most often children learn to spell the words as well as learning their meanings.

In addition to this type of instruction, most teachers look for opportunities throughout their day to pay some additional attention to vocabulary. Perhaps by introducing some new words in reading lessons, or adding the technical vocabulary in science or social studies lessons to a word wall.

With this approach to vocabulary instruction we can, at best, teach between 300 and 800 words. This is not enough. Vocabulary instruction that relies on expanding children’s vocabularies one word at a time will not help us reach our goals in growing and expanding a child’s repertoire of words. Instead let’s consider vocabulary instruction that takes some of the indirect and direct methods of the past, connects them to children’s identities and to quality literature, and focuses on children really knowing words. Because when we really know a word, it is a part of both our receptive and expressive language. We appreciate it, use it in oral communication, chose it for our writing, and make sense of it in our reading.

The question of how to include vocabulary in our instruction begins by making a potential shift in our thinking. We want to understand how we can teach vocabulary so that children can become better readers, writers, and thinkers… NOT how we can teach children to memorize the definitions of certain words. Again, the ultimate goal of vocabulary instruction is to help children to really know words. We know that strategies like taking vocabulary tests or looking up words in a dictionary and writing them in sentences don’t result in real word learning. Instead, we need to consider what we can do to foster authentic word learning in children.

Michael Graves, author of The Vocabulary Book, provides us with a four-ply plan that includes both implicit, or indirect vocabulary learning, and explicit, or direct vocabulary learning.

Direct vocabulary learning refers to children learning vocabulary through:

  1. Teaching individual words
  2. Teaching word learning strategies
  3. Fostering word consciousness

We have added a fourth idea to the direct teaching of vocabulary:

  1. Utilizing home language

Let’s explore each of these in more detail and understand their implications for us.

Teaching Individual Words

In teaching individual words, we have two decisions to make: what words we will teach, and when we will teach them.

To decide what words we will teach, the 3-Tier system we learned about earlier will be most helpful. When we read aloud to children, we want to highlight a couple Tier 2 or 3 words, depending on the text. In a fiction text, you are more likely to encounter Tier 2 words like persistent. In a non-fiction text about plant life, for example, you are more likely to encounter a Tier 3 word like photosynthesis.

To decide when will we teach these words, we need to think about the opportunities we have throughout the school day. Remember, we know that teaching words out of context, or for no purpose, is not beneficial to children.

The three best opportunities we have to teach individual words are:

  1. Before and during our read alouds

    This is when we want to both point out and define some of the sophisticated language that authors use. When we provide definitions for children, we want them to be what we refer to as “child friendly.” For example, when we define the word persistent during a read aloud we might say “persistent means to keep trying and never give up.”

    We want to take opportunities to highlight words and their definitions in the read alouds we do across the curriculum—in science, social studies, and math as well. Some additional strategies for teaching individual words to English Language Learners include (Silverman, 2016):

    • Say the word to children and have them say it back • Show a printed version of the word, and have children notice the letters and sounds in the word • Offer a child-friendly, highly comprehensible definition of the word • Use actions, gestures, and/or pictures to explain the meaning of the word • Give children examples of the word in different contexts

  2. Before and during small group instruction

    We may select words to focus on that are challenging for readers, and should also choose words that contribute to the overall meaning of the text.

  3. In a conversation with children in which we are presenting a “word of the day” or week

    Highlighting a word that is connected to weekly themes and learning helps children add new words to their schema. We’ll touch on this more when we talk about fostering word consciousness.

    One important caution when we teach individual words is to be mindful of how we use and introduce dictionaries, which should be presented to children as a useful tool, not as the sole or even the primary means of developing a stronger vocabulary; simply having children look up words in the dictionary will not expand their vocabulary substantially, but it may help them figure out the meaning of particular words when they read complex text.

Word Learning Strategies

The second component of direct vocabulary learning is teaching word learning strategies, like how to infer word meaning from context clues, or use word parts to figure out the meanings of words.

We know that lots of words can be figured out by inferring their meaning from context. This strategy is often referred to as “using context clues.” Also, the meanings of 60% of the new words children encounter can be inferred by analyzing word parts or morphemes. Like the example: (-tele (far) confer (talk) teleconference).

Children who have an awareness of the meanings of word parts like prefixes, suffixes, and roots can make links between the pronunciation, spelling, and meaning of many challenging words.

Fostering Word Consciousness

The third component of direct vocabulary learning is fostering word consciousness. Word consciousness is our awareness of the role and the power of words. Word-conscious children enjoy words and are zealous about learning them.

Word consciousness can be built by including more vocabulary in the print environment with word walls, word banks, and a posted word of the day—drawn from words related to a unit, topic, or group of texts the class is learning about. Word consciousness can also be fostered by teachers who express their own excitement and curiosity about new words and encourage children to ponder and play with the new words they learn. Teachers should take opportunities to demonstrate excitement and curiosity for words that are part of a certain language, variation of English, or are significant to a culture or community. Attention to these words helps to highlight the diverse cultures and identities in the classroom and in the world, while enriching and sustaining the experiences of children.

Educators need to send the message to children that discovering words and learning new words is interesting, powerful, and fun. When we teach children to be conscious of the role and power of words, they begin to take ownership over discovering, learning, and using new words on their own.

Utilize Home Languages

Because no language is more prestigious than another, the culture and instruction of classrooms must convey that all languages are valuable and contribute to learning and growth in our classrooms. One way to do this is to use translanguaging in the context of read alouds or shared writing, where a text might be read or composed in more than one language, and where children have the opportunity to use both vocabulary from their home language and academic English vocabulary from school to discuss or write about a topic (Hesson et al., 2014; Garcia et al., 2020). Another is to teach children how to recognize cognates, words in different languages that have the same origin (familia/family). With cognates, children can use what they know about a word in one language to figure out its meaning in another language. Spanish and English have many cognates (Montelongo and Hernandez, 2013).

Indirect vocabulary learning opportunities occur through wide reading and oral language.

Children’s vocabulary learning is magnified when we combine indirect and direct vocabulary learning. When we read aloud to children and show them how we notice words, try to define them in our own words, display them, and purposefully intend to use that word in our speaking and writing—we are supporting them to do the same thing when they encounter words on their own. We want them, while reading independently, to notice new and interesting words, write them in a word bank, and play with those words by comparing them to other words or categorizing them. Doing these things will help them to really know the word.

When it comes to reading to children, reading with children, and having children read independently, the texts we share with them and give them access to matter. Children’s motivation for reading increases when they can see representations of their identities and cultures in books—when they see their languages and words used and celebrated by authors.

Finally, oral language is critical to vocabulary instruction. Considering ways in which children can engage with printed, posted text and read it with rhythm and expression will enhance their understanding and appreciation of words. Also, giving them opportunities to share oral stories from their cultures and communities will give them a chance to use and celebrate their words, while growing their classmates’ word knowledge.

The big idea is that indirect and direct vocabulary learning not only happens side by side, but that the indirect learning opportunities—those rich and varied learning experiences—are very much enhanced by the direct vocabulary instruction we do throughout the day. Children’s learning of words increases exponentially when we recognize and value the words they bring to our classrooms, help bring new words to life for children, demonstrate amazement of the power and beauty of words, and provide opportunities for children to interact with words in a variety of ways.


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