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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Techniques for Teaching Vocabulary to Elementary Students

Updated 01/2014

So, I'm sitting in a workshop on vocabulary development listening to a bunch of research as to why kids lack the language to effectively comprehend and communicate. The largest factor (found by this specific research) that determines a child's vocabulary cache is . . . (Drum roll) . . . In-home communication between adult and child using rich language. No talking, no vocabulary -- makes sense, right? The more you hear it, the more likely you're going to use it, the more you're going to "own" it. It's the purest form of contextual usage. It's life. This makes total sense to me. As a teacher, writer, and father of a three-year-old, I'm always exposing my son to strong, healthy vocabulary. It's not rocket science; it just takes some extra effort to recognize those special times to work on vocabulary (I'm not using the term "teachable moment" here because working on vocabulary really shouldn't seem like a formal lesson; it should be as natural as a friendly conversation).

Let me give you a play-by-play to give you a sense of how I do it at home.

  • Setting: Playing in the backyard.
  • Max: It's getting hot.
  • Me: Yes, the temperature is going up.
  • Max: It sure is.
  • Me: The temperature is increasing.
  • Max. Yup.
  • Me: Yeah, it's rising.

Now, Max is three and some change, so he's not really absorbing all of the words. I know that. I don't expect him to remember the words right away. I'm planting "word seeds" to grow over the years. He will eventually know that "going up," increasing, and rising are all related. Vocabulary development doesn't happen overnight; with food and water, vocabulary will slowly grow like a big, old oak tree reaching up to the sky.

DON'T: Force It

I left the workshop thinking about how I personally teach vocabulary without making it seem like I'm forcing new words into the absorbent brain tissue of my students. The key to "real-life-like" vocabulary instruction is not to force it. Let it happen, my friend (like a friendly conversation). Avoid fill-in-the-blank worksheets, matching, and vocabulary quizzes at all costs. Forcing students to quantify their learning in a quiz or test sets the brain to stun, not kill (Stun= regurgitated-on-paper-never-to-be-used-again. Kill= embedded-and-owned.). In his book, On Writing, Stephen King states that vocabulary should be on the top shelf of your writing toolbox, and "Don't make a conscious effort to improve it." To the beginning writer and teacher that might sound weird. However, Stevie continues with, "You'll be doing that (improving vocabulary) while you're reading." Ah-ha! Now we're talking; now we're learning new vocabulary on the go, in the field, and LIVE (naturally). But how do we get kids to do that? Patience.

DO: Model Inquisitiveness

Teaching kids new words and definitions is very important, but what's more crucial to ongoing vocabulary development is modeling when and how to be inquisitive about words. Here are a few "moments" that I use to model how to naturally investigate words and directly teach them as well.

1. Read Aloud: I read out loud to my students every day. Please, oh please, don't ever cut this from your daily routine. It's so important for kids to hear how words and punctuation intertwine to create a coherent story. This is a great time to discuss the word choice of the author, the good and the bad. I like to use the think-aloud technique to show students how I mentally investigate words. Gaetan's mental thoughts: wait a minute -- what does that word mean? Re-read the sentence..okay it could be... but maybe not. Do I see a pre-fix or a suffix? I'm sure you get the idea. When parents ask me how they can help their child improve their reading, I tell them to investigate a word a day that appears in their reading homework and plant the "word seed."

2. Reading/Writing Conferences: Individual reading/writing conferences are the epitome of differentiation. This is where a teacher can really access student needs and meet them at their wordsmith level. Along with discussing words, for those of you who need something concrete and documented, "the list" is always a good idea. I have my students create individualized spelling lists and vocabulary lists in their writing journal, which are updated during conferencing or just on-the-go. I also create class lists of good words, such as "Buff Verbs" and "Instead of Said" words (speaker tags). It's always nice to have a reference.

3. Poetry: Almost everything a student needs to know about reading and writing can be taught through poetry. The poem is very versatile: its length is less intimidating than a short story or novel; poets usually use strong words (they have to because of the length); the definitions of the words can usually be deciphered through context clues; and, although poems are awesome fun to use, make sure you use age-appropriate poetry. We all know poets can be "out there." Sometimes after reading a difficult poem we all kind of just stare and "Dig the Heaviness." That's really all we can do. I try to "unpack" at least two to three poems a week, digging out some good words to discuss.

4. Morning Message: If you are into the responsive classroom thing, you can definitely use the morning message to increase the student word power. When I interned at the Nancie Atwell Center for Teaching and Learning (read my blog of the experience: Five Practices that Transformed My Teaching), I was amazed at how Ted DeMille, 1st/2nd grade teacher, taught with the morning message. He started with phonics and ended with comprehension. It was quite amazing.

Contextual vocabulary acquisition is the most effective way to get words to stick, but it takes time and patience. Just think about how toddlers learn to speak. They learn from adults, brothers and sisters, and their peers over several years of listening. They don't learn from worksheets or memorizing word lists. Their word acquisition begins by listening, and then moves to learning from books and conversation. Although teachers will never make up for lost home-life vocabulary development, they can make a huge impact on their students by consistently planting those "word seeds" in a natural, conversational way.

Comments (42)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Claudia Garcia-Gutierrez's picture
Claudia Garcia-Gutierrez
Third grade English reading teacher from Palm Beach County, Florida

I agree with you and the testing situation. I also run into that problem when my third grade students take our state reading test or diagnosticss it never fails the area of greatest need is alway vocabulary. I'm sorry to say that I have not found a happy balance, but one thing I use as a bellringer is World Ladders to increase vocabulary.

ateacherinva's picture
ateacherinva
Second Grade Teacher from Virginia

I am a second grade teacher and a parent of a second grader. I teach in an urban school setting where most of my students come from low income families. Most of their vocabulary instruction comes from school because the majority of my students have little conversation once they leave school. This is for two reasons: no one is home for them to talk too or they are playing video games all evening. I require my students to speak in complete sentences and use correct grammar. Also, I encourage them to use vocabulary words (which I have a vocabulary wall for-this is separate from the word wall) they have been taught to help enrich their speaking and writing. A lot of my students have trouble having a conversation with me or their peers due to the lack of communication at home. Whenever a child uses a word from the vocabulary wall in their writing or in conversation the correct way they are rewarded with a ticket which they can redeem on Friday each week for computer time or playing games.
I have found this to be very encouraging and a lot of parents comment that their children use words they have never heard them use or heard of themselves.

Hilary's picture

I really enjoyed reading your post. Vocabulary has been a topic of many discussions among my 1st grade team. I've started using poetry as a way of teaching vocabulary and I can really see a difference already with my students!

Nicole Bohanan's picture

As a mother I am continually trying to find ways which I can teach my daughter new words. Though she is only 10 months old, I do not speak to her using "baby talk" and use the correct words when describing things (for example: banana instead of nana). Remarkably, she already says "all done" when she is finished at meal time, and "mama up" when she is ready to get out of her car seat. I try to make every moment a "teachable moment" for her, and therefore I am always talking. Most of the time I feel a little crazy because I am telling an infant about things like paying bills and the weather, but I know it will pay off in the end. Why not tell our children about these things? What harm could it really do? I know that my daughter will learn many more words because of my constant talking. I even count and describe everything that goes into the shopping cart at the grocery store!

On a professional level I agree with you whole-heartedly. Frequently I walk down the hallway and hear teachers talking "to" their students and not "with" them. I have even had a student come to me and tell me that her teacher made her feel like "an idiot" on a regular basis because of how she talked to her. The student felt like her teacher did not think they would understand higher quality vocabulary words, and typically would not use descriptive words when discussing assignments. I truly feel for students who have experiences like this. Teachers should always try to raise the bar for expectations in the classroom, not lower them. By talking down to your students you are demeaning them and showing them you don't have the belief that they can have high achievement levels. That is an extremely sad outcome from a situation that could have been completely different with the simple use of colorful and articulate language.

Katy Linich's picture
Katy Linich
Special Education Teacher (Grades K-3) from Olympia, WA

Thanks for writing this. You gave me a lot to think about. I often feel frustrated trying to use words that my younger students with cognitive or learning disabilities can understand. I realized, however, that by doing this, I'm not doing them any favors. It's one thing put words into kid-friendly language when you're introducing a new skill, but entirely another if you're talking "to" kids in that language all of the time.

I liked your clarification of talking "with" kids vs. talking "to" kids. I think I could have entirely more engaging conversations with my students -- even the ones with cognitive impairments.

Erin's picture
Erin
Special Education Teacher from Aiken, South Carolina

This makes total sense! I get a lot of students in the elementary school where they are labled as having Developmental Delays. They come to school not knowing anything! Once they are totally exposed to language they really improve so much. It is unfortunate that a lot of students do not ever catch up because so much time has been wasted! I have made it a point to read, have conversations, and expose my own children to many things so they will be ahead of a lot of children when they get to school.

Dorothy's picture
Dorothy
Elementary Teacher

I like your approach on introducing vocabulary. Children need good communication at home. Sadly in today's world parents are often to busy to spend quality time with their children to provide natural conversation. Most of the time students build their vocabulary through read alouds and collaborative work at school. Your blog gave me insight on being more aware of how I communicate with my students.

Diana G.'s picture

Possessing a wide array of vocabulary is of paramount importance to the development of every child and even more vital for English Language Learners. I have been employing the same methods that you describe and I have seen the improvement among my own students.

Kim's picture
Kim
Third Grade teacher

I totally agree. Planting the seeds of vocabulary at a young age will help to develop a rich vocabulary later. It also helps children to develop a curiousity about word meanings. I spoke to both of my own children using rich vocabulary words from a young age and now that they are both in high school, they continue to use rich vocabulary in their writing and speaking.

Kelly P.'s picture
Kelly P.
KIndergarten teacher

Thanks for sharing your ideas. There are many children that come to my school with poor language skills. It is important to provide them with a language and literacy enriched classroom. I like to use the think-aloud technique as well to show students how I mentally investigate words. Reading and writing conferences are a good why to access student's needs and to help them at their level. Although, sometimes it can be difficult to fit the time in to conference with them. I will definitely use your idea of increasing student word power in my morning messages.

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