Since vocabulary development is an active, ongoing process for children during these years, helping them increase the size of their vocabulary should be an integral, ongoing part of any school curriculum. As suggested by the research cited above, curricula for vocabulary development should concentrate on introducing new words into the classroom and using a variety of teaching methods to ensure that students can grasp the meaning of the words and remember them. Often, this does not mean that teachers need to drastically change their curriculum – rather they just need to make sure that whatever their lesson is, it includes a focus on vocabulary. I’ve incorporated ideas suggested from the research on vocabulary acquisition, and the teaching recommendations of Baumann & Kameenui (1991), and come up with a list of strategies that is key for 3 – 5 year olds.
1. All curriculum areas should be structured with an eye towards introducing unfamiliar words within that subject area. Teachers should provide definitions or contextual clues to help children figure out the meaning of words, and they should use them often. Students should have the opportunity to use them in the context of the work they are doing. For example, if the teacher is doing a unit on animals and teaching the children the names of different animals, the children might have to pick an animal they like best and draw it. The children could then dictate stories to the teacher that could get written on the picture, or they could make a picture book with pictures of a number of different animals and then tell the teacher the names of all the animals.
2. The teacher should plan to read stories that contain unfamiliar words and then plan a number of activities that give the children the opportunity to use the words. This would include having a discussion of the unfamiliar words, having an analytic discussion of the story, providing opportunities for the students to use the words again by retelling the story in their own words, having students draw pictures that illustrate the word or the story, or having the students act out the story or do a puppet show.
3, The teacher should try to expose students to a variety of oral language, such as songs, poems, stories, non-fiction, etc. 4. A rich conversation/discussion life should be developed in the classroom so that children have the opportunity to hear unfamiliar words and use them in discussions. The children should be given plenty of opportunities to express themselves in general and to use new words. This can include telling stories, acting stories out, singing, reciting poems, playing games, etc. The children should be involved in analytical discussions and the teacher should have small group discussions with the children when possible.
5. The children should be taught strategies for using contextual or visual clues to try to figure out what a word means. 6. Since the home is just as important as school for vocabulary development in these early years (Snow, 1993), ways should be found to involve families in the learning process as much as possible. Studies have shown ( Segel, 1994; Toomey and Sloane 1994) that most parents are interested and willing to learn techniques to help their children learn.
At the beginning of the school year, there should be a meeting and information sent to parents to explain the effort to increase the vocabulary of the children. Parents should be informed of the important role they can play and how they can participate throughout the year. The meetings should explain the rationale of this teaching strategy and show parents how to read with their children and highlight new vocabulary and engage them in analytical discussions.
Depending on how much time the parents have, the children would bring home their work or a book every night ( or as often as agreed upon between parents and the teacher) and read with their parents or tell their parents a story that they drew or maybe sing a song that they learned, or parents and children could create a story together that the child could bring into school. Parents could be invited to school on a regular basis to see how the teacher works with the children, so that they have a better idea of how to do that at home. Parents could also be invited to read with their children in the classroom at the beginning or end of school for 15 minutes or so.
The role of technology in instrucation
Media is ideally suited to support this kind of instruction. Since, for the most part, children cannot read at this age, they must rely on the adults around them for the rich oral environment that will help build their vocabulary. This is not the same for older children, who can read independently and look up the definitions of words. The extent to which young children are involved in a rich oral environment, then, depends on the time the adults around them can spend with them, talking and reading to them.
The introduction of media allows the child to spend significantly larger amounts of time hearing stories (which can be repeated over and over), hearing rare words, and creating their own stories, both in the classroom and at home. The role of the media, in this case, is to act as a supplement, not take the place of the adults. It is to extend and reinforce the teaching and analytic discussions in the classroom. Children can’t have analytic discussions with computers, but they can use the computers and other media to hear stories and words again, and draw or dictate their own stories.
The media is also a key element in introducing and maintaining active vocabulary acquistion in the home. The media can be a real help for parents. If the child can bring the media home, parents and children can, for example, watch something together and the parent can discuss it with the child. If the parent is busy, the child can still watch and get the benefits of the additional exposure without having to wait for a parent to be free. Additionally, if a parent does not have strong reading skills and/or is not a native English speaker, they may find it too hard to read to their children. They might find it a lot easier to listen to an audio tape or watch a video of a story with their child.