Did you know that vocabulary is one of the biggest predictors of reading success in students?
The words we use on a daily basis with our students, in addition to the vocabulary instruction we provide, are CRUCIAL for them! Since it’s so important, it’s only right to get some really great tools and strategies for helping our kids’ vocabulary soar. I’m here to share 5 easy, research based tips, to help teach your students the importance of learning new words and how to support them on their literacy journey. We’ll get into the different components of Scarborough’s Reading Rope and how to help your students become successful readers in FUN and ENGAGING ways!
As educators, we know vocabulary is important. But did you know kindergarten students’ word knowledge is a predictor for their reading comprehension in later grades? (Catts, Fey, Zhang, & Tomblin, 1999; Roth, Speece, & Cooper, 2002) That’s right- our young little 5 year olds need to be exposed to as many words as possible, because it’s not overwhelming their brains, it’s expanding it!
It wasn’t until the big shift into Science of Reading that I learned exactly how crucial vocabulary instruction is for the success of our students. I read The Knowledge Gap by Natalie Wexler and Shifting the Balance by Jan Burkins and Kari Yates and they totally shifted my thinking! If you haven’t read these books yet and you’re still early in your Science of Reading journey, I would HIGHLY recommend both of them. And if you’re just beginning your Science of Reading journey, check out this post HERE!
One piece of information really stood out to me that I believe all educators should take note of. Natalie shares in her book that if groups of students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds were exposed to the same amount of background knowledge and essential vocabulary that peers from higher economic status had, it would level the playing field and they would perform just as well as everyone else. How mind blowing is that? That is the power of using RICH vocabulary with our students, ALL THE TIME, in EVERY GRADE.
So let’s get into those 5 easy tips to help you help your students build all the vivacious vocabulary!
#1: Casual Conversations
When teaching vocabulary to students, one of the most important things you can do is to keep it natural. We want to use a wide vocabulary with our students in NATURAL ways, just like a casual conversation. One of the biggest disservices you can do for your students is to use simple words all the time to help them understand.
In the Knowledge Gap by Natalie Wexler, she talks about the importance of using a broad vocabulary with students. She explains that if WE, the educators, don’t expose them to all kinds of words, and we’re the ones with them for 6+ hours a day, then students may not be exposed to a vast sea of words. If we tell ourselves throughout the course of the day that I’m not going to use/say this word because they won’t know what it means, how will they ever learn it? Instead, use the bigger word and if they ask you, “what does that word mean?”, simply teach them!
So bust out all your big words. Talk to them like you would talk to adults. Expose them to language of all kinds. They’ll thank you later.
#2: Rich Read Alouds
One of the most natural ways to expose students to an expansive vocabulary outside of conversation is through reading literature and having great discussions afterward. When choosing books to read with students, be sure to choose ones that are rich in vocabulary. When previewing the text, select 3-5 new vocabulary words that students may come across in other reading material or academic areas. The goal is to expand their vocabulary, help them make meaning in the text, and support them as they come across these words in other areas.
I like to use THESE slides to introduce the words to students before diving into the text. This can simply become a part of your read aloud routine and doesn’t have to take long. It’s just a quick way to begin building that vocabulary so they can begin to look for the words in the text. During our word introduction, I also like to have students act out what the word means. There is research to support the Total Physical Response when teaching language to students. Adding a kinesthetic piece to your vocabulary instruction is super beneficial for all of your students, especially those English Language Learners!
It’s important to preselect the words before reading and have a definition ready to share. I like to write the words on a sticky note and attach it to the book so that I have the reference in the future as well. Set students up for success by having them be on the lookout for those interesting new words. “When you get to the word you can give a parenthetical explanation on the run.” (Burkin, Yates, 2021)
Let’s say you are reading and one of your vocabulary words is grudge. You want to give students information about the word without breaking from the flow of the story. For example, “That orange didn’t call me back for a week. Grudge! (that means when you continue to feel ill will towards a person)” and then you keep going with the rest of the story until you get to the next word. This is another simple routine strategy you can implement when teaching vocabulary. Check out THIS routine below!
While it is important to teach students vocabulary through reading, it is equally as essential to teach it through discussions. It’s crucial to have meaningful conversations after reading and interacting with different types of texts. Remember, the discussion doesn’t have to stop after read-alouds. Add in quality questioning and chats, and utilize purposeful turn and talks with partners. Need more ideas to turn up your vocabulary instruction? Check out the Weekly Vocabulary Routine! If you’d like to learn more about the importance of partner talk for practicing conversations and building language skills, check it out HERE!
#3: Create a Collection
Another natural way to get students excited about new vocabulary is by having them become word collectors! It’s an easy and SUPER engaging way to do it. Have you read the Word Collector by Peter Reynolds? This is a great book to read with students and show them how each and every one of them are word collectors too!
After reading, create an anchor chart or designate a wall to display all the words you will collect throughout the year. When students come across a new word, they’ll write it on a sticky note and attach it to the compilation! You’ll see words from math lessons, history lessons, science experiments, and book discussions. You will be AMAZED at the number of words the students come up with and how your collection grows by the end of the year.
The best part is THEIR excitement over finding new words and building their vocabulary. They can also store their own individual collection in their Word Collector Journal that they can keep with them and access while writing or reading. Grab your FREE journal below!
#4: Connect the Dots
When helping students build their vocabulary, you obviously want them to actually retain the words they’re learning and know how to use them in the proper context. It is crucial for students to have a deep understanding of the meaning of these newly acquired words and there are many ways to help with that. You want students to build connections with their new vocabulary to their own personal experience and their world!
Below are a few great ways to make meaning of new words and build connections:
Frayer Model – This model is a great way to give students a visual for their vocabulary and a good reference for what it does and does NOT mean. It can be utilized during your weekly vocabulary routine and they can be stored in their journals for them to have instant access to.
Homonyms and Homophones – Words that have the same spelling or pronunciation, but different meanings are crucial to know when learning new words. This will help students decipher between correct spellings and definitions when coming across these unique words. These activities are fun, engaging, and help students learn all the ins and outs of their newly acquired word!
Synonyms and Antonyms – Teaching words with similar and opposite meaning is another great way to help students build a plethora of new words. They’ll get to use synonyms and antonyms for a bigger boost to their expansive vocabulary. What better way to keep building that collection of words? Check out these fun resources!
Morphology – Incorporating morphology with students is a great way to build a deeper understanding of the actual parts of a word and their meaning. Don’t be afraid to take it deeper than prefixes and suffixes and to help students really understand what makes up the word and its relation to other words like it. For example, if you’re teaching the word “one”, extend it and expose them to all the words related to “one”, such as only, alone, and lonely. I recommend you to check out THIS video for an in-depth explanation of making sense of words. You can also learn more about the importance of mapping words HERE, instead of teaching students to memorize words.
Word Charades – Remember when I touched earlier on the Total Physical Response? Well there is SO much research on how acting out their words can really help grasp a deep understanding of their definitions. Think of a physical movement to help students retain their new word. Let’s use the example “grudge” again. To help students really retain this word, I might act out looking angry, putting my hand up in an imaginary person’s face, and then walking away. You can model this for students by saying, “The word grudge means… filling in the definition, and then showing them the movement with your body.” You can then have them practice doing the same thing. Afterwards, grudge can be added to your word collection and you all can participate in a meaningful discussion about a time they had a grudge or someone had a grudge against them. All of this and more is part of the Weekly Vocabulary Routine! It’s easy to implement and helps students retain and grow with these important, rich words!
#5: Build Their Background Knowledge
Developing a broad vocabulary and building background knowledge go hand in hand. It is SO important to activate that schema before diving into a new text. If students have the vocabulary and the background knowledge, they can read ANYTHING. This picture below is such a great reminder of that.
Also, DON’T BE AFRAID OF NONFICTION. Don’t be afraid of using big words. Your students CAN do it and they WANT it! Bust out all the nonfiction text because it’s IMPORTANT. You can let students lead it. Maybe you all read The Sour Grape by Jory John and now students want to learn about how grapes grow. These are natural connections students make and get excited about. Foster that and let them learn about the topics that interest them. You can be the facilitator of their learning and help them build the meaning of all the words they come across!
I hope you enjoyed learning all about how to teach vocabulary to your students and make it apart of your weekly routine. These are CRUCIAL life skills for students! Don’t forget to subscribe to my email list! Not only will you get the most up to date tips, tricks, and classroom projects… and of course more fun FREEBIES including the Word Collector Journal FREEBIE! You will also have exclusive access to tons of digital how to videos! If you would like to learn about this and other things happening in my classroom follow me @sweetnsauerfirsties on Instagram.
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