Children of all ages are exposed to many vocabulary words, known and unknown, everyday of their lives. To this day, I, as a graduate student, am constantly learning new words. However being exposed to and retaining the words that are heard are two very different things. Therefore, it is important that teachers expose their students to new vocabulary through interactive play.
Chapters 1-3 of Literacy Through Play author Gretchen Owocki explained and showed through scenarios observed how important play is for young children and how through play, children are able to develop vocabulary in a fun and engaging way. Not only do children learn new vocabulary through their experiences with play but also they use “written language … [and] they discover many of its features – the formation of letters, the spellings of words, the meanings of words, and how punctuation works” (3). Play facilitates literacy in many forms and it allows children to form and demonstrate new knowledge while allowing teachers to guide their students in the formation of such knowledge (3). According to Owocki, “play [also] provides a safe environment for risk taking. Children can try out new ideas without worrying about the consequences” (3). This is an important factor of play because students learn by taking risks and if they have learned to take risks through play in an environment that is safe, they will hopefully be comfortable taking risks in other academic and educational environments as well.
There are many different types of play, such as exploratory play and dramatic play, and all of these types can and should be found in primary classrooms, especially in prekindergarten classrooms. It is important for teachers to know that “…children’s personal histories and cultural experiences will affect their ways of interacting socially during play” (14). Therefore, it is important that teachers know their students’ backgrounds and allow children to explore the different routes of play in the classroom at their own pace. As for the setup of the classroom, it is important that it is a print rich environment; a classroom should be filled with opportunities for children to read and write using a variety of materials and mediums and “when…children or teachers see a good reason to use print in their play, they [should] have no trouble finding a way to do so” (19). It is also important that students “plan for play” so that they have a focus for play. This plan also allows teachers to appropriately set up the classroom environment based on what the students want to do. Planning for play also creates a dialogue between teachers and students; a student generally creates a plan based on questions asked by their teacher, such as “What would you like to do today?” thus allowing for the students “…to use oral language to explain and inform” (21). Not only does this aspect of play in the classroom environment call for oral communication but also it requires students to use their knowledge of vocabulary to effectively communicate. For example, if a student is playing in the Post Office he or she must know words such as stamp, envelope, mailbox, etc. If a student doesn’t know these words, they will learn them during play with assistance from the teacher. Therefore, play allows children to travel from different “environments” inside the classroom to facilitate new knowledge and vocabulary.
During play, teachers have the opportunity to model literacy, which “…involves using written language within the context of the play – as a participant. The goal is to encourage children to incorporate written language into their play or to help them elaborate on a literacy event that is already taking place” (26). Although children may not know how to read or write conventionally, they are still aware that print holds meaning and even if they interpret what is written in their own way, they’re still developing necessary skills that they will hone later on. In the other early childhood classroom that Owocki describes, the teacher creates centers that focus on the content-area concepts that her students must develop. While the students are playing in the centers, the teacher is able to pull small-groups and work with children on topics of need. This is a perfect way for teachers to reach struggling students as well as those who excel and need to be challenged while the rest of the class is engaged in meaningful and constructive forms of play. During these small groups, the teacher can work on vocabulary skills with his or her students; vocabulary work can be focused on what may be heard or seen in the various centers, or on vocabulary that may be difficult for students that has previously been explored. Regardless, small-group instruction is vital in order to make sure that all students are learning and understanding.
In Chapter 7 of Literacy Beginnings: A Prekindergarten Handbook, Irene C. Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell discuss the benefits of reading aloud to children to build vocabulary. When teachers read aloud to their students, it’s important that they choose books carefully and also prepare discussions to have with their students. When choosing a book to read aloud, it’s also important to find a few vocabulary words to draw students’ attention to and discuss, thus providing students with a new word or two and giving them a meaningful context in which they can use the word(s) they’ve learned (83-4). Choosing books, or poems, with rhyme and rhythm can “…greatly enhance the appeal of the text and children’s ability to remember and use some of the language” (84). Even though our goal as teachers is to provide students with new vocabulary, we can do so in a way that doesn’t interrupt children’s appreciation and language of a story while drawing attention to the new vocabulary through discussion and repetition.
Through the development of new vocabulary, students’ awareness of words greatly increases. Children love to put what they’ve learned into practice and “they become conscious of making word choices that capture their meaning” (85). Therefore, it is important that teachers “…embed intentional vocabulary instruction in meaningful conversation about topics of interest and stories that have made an impact” (87). Another way in which teachers can help students develop their vocabulary through their classroom environment is by labeling objects around the classrooms with both pictures and words. Not only does this expose children to new words but also it helps to develop their concept and awareness of print and that print holds meaning (87). Any ways in which teachers can provide students with meaningful vocabulary, either through direct or indirect instruction, they’re working towards developing their students’ vocabulary and making words meaningful and useful.
In class, we learned that there are three different elements of vocabulary acquisition: indirect learning (listening to adults read or reading independently), direct learning (pre-reading, repeated use of a word) and independent learning (using references, context clues and word parts). All of these are important and valuable ways in which students acquire new words. It’s important that teachers instill the values of reading independently and using context clues to help facilitate reading and understanding, as well as listening to or reading with an adult. All of these practices will help students develop their vocabulary, as well as the use of word sorts, word walls, graphic organizers visuals, technology, and a rich library of books in a classroom environment. No two students learn the same way, and therefore, by using this multi-modal approach to teaching students new vocabulary will allow for individuals to find the way(s) that best work for him or her. Another fun and engaging way to make students aware of vocabulary is to make them “Vocabulary Detectives”. As vocabulary detectives, students must use a variety of strategies, such as context clues, pictures, and asking themselves “what makes sense?” in order to determine the tricky word that they may be stuck on. Making students vocabulary detectives provides them with a fun and engaging way to challenge themselves to determine what a new word is instead of creating frustration in their lack of understanding. It is important that teachers encourage students in engaging ways so that they don’t become discouraged. Another strategy that engages students in learning new vocabulary is the “Four Square” graphic organizer; in this activity, students must define the word in their words, draw a picture, write their own sentence, and find synonyms for the word. This activity is enticing to students because it allows them to be creative while learning a new vocabulary word that will hopefully remain with them so that they can practice and use the word. All of the aforementioned strategies, as well as others that engage students in their learning of vocabulary, are important to institute in the classroom.
Other activities that can be used to help students develop their vocabulary knowledge can come in the forms of games, visuals, and direct instruction. I believe that by getting students active and involved, they will retain what is being learned. Therefore, the extension activities that I found are games that get students up and moving. These games can be adapted for a wide range of grades.
The first game that I found requires students to interact with a vocabulary word in a variety of ways: spell it, repeat three times, use it in a sentence, draw it, write it down, ask three people to say it, define it, and act it out. It is important that the teacher explains and models how to complete each of the activities on the spinner, as well as pre-teaching the vocabulary words that are being used. Students can work in small groups or individually when participating in this activity. It is important that teachers have some students share in order to make sure that they understand the vocabulary words being worked with. If working with a class of preschoolers or kindergarteners, this activity can be adapted by removing some of the options on the spinner.
Another activity that I found that directly involves all students in the classroom and encourages students to use the vocabulary words that have been learned is “Words to Talk About”. In this activity, the teacher must use direct instruction to teach the vocabulary words and students are encouraged to use the words in the classroom. Tally marks are used to indicate the number of times that the words are correctly used by the students. This is an engaging and challenging way to encourage students to use the vocabulary words they’ve learned.
Another great way, especially for preschoolers, to learn new vocabulary is to create a book of pictures and labels. Not only will this book show pictures of items, but the word will also be given so that students can match the two and develop a sense of print and new vocabulary. This can be done with both familiar and unfamiliar words, and the books can be personalized to each student, thus creating a book that is special to each child.
A link to an interesting article, “Supporting Preschoolers’ Vocabulary Learning: Using a Decision-Making Model to Select Appropriate Words and Methods,” can be found below. This article further explores vocabulary in young children.