Becoming Word Conscious-January 22, 2023

Vocabulary learning has been a topic of conversation in my discussions with teachers from across early years programs. Most recently, vocabulary was a focus of conversation with an English teacher I met with in Mexico City. This teacher spent a lot of time speaking about the importance of introducing and talking about words with the young children she teaches. She was so passionate about language and early literacy development—it was clear that oral language was a critical component of her literacy program. Whether it’s in their first, second or fifth language, supporting children’s vocabulary development by explicitly discussing the meaning of words, talking about words in relation to other similar words, and sharing ways to use words in sentences and broader contexts are all essential aspects for understanding texts and media. The teachers I’ve been talking to recently certainly know the value of what it takes to really know a word and foster word consciousness. Of course, teachers also talk about how they support vocabulary learning implicitly by encouraging conversations, reading to students, and having them read often. Books and other forms of media can often introduce children to new words that we don’t necessarily use in our day-to-day conversations. Take the author Roald Dahl, for instance. In his chapter books, like James and Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Dahl uses fantastical adjectives for the reader to create vivid images and understand the text in greater complexity. I love the words Dahl uses in this paragraph from James and the Giant Peach:

They all watched, aghast. And now at a signal from the leader all the other sharks came swimming in toward the peach and they clustered around it and began to attack it furiously. There must have been twenty or thirty of them at least, all pushing and fighting and lashing their tails and churning the water into a froth (p. 56).

Words like aghast, clustered, furiously, lashing, churning, and froth could easily be replaced by more common words (aghast could have been scared, churning could have been mixing), but Dahl ensures his readers are engaged in the story by opting for the use of higher-level vocabulary.

Some researchers, like Isabel Beck and Margart McKeown have suggested that these types of words (tier two words) be taught explicitly. They describe tier two words as “high-frequency words for mature language users—coincidence, absurd, industrious—and thus instruction in these words can add productively to an individual’s language ability”. Beck and McKewon suggest that teachers select tier two words based on the following criteria:

Importance and utility: words that are characteristic of mature language users and appear across a variety of domains.

Instructional potential: words that can be worked within a variety of ways so that students can build rich representations of them and their connections to other words and concepts.

Conceptual understanding: words for which students understand the general concept but provide precision and specificity in describing the concept.

So what about the other tiered words? Tier one words are often words that are common and can be dealt with quickly, like happy, clock, and flower. Tier three words, on the other hand, are words that are usually used in specific domains. Terrarium, ecosystem, and biosphere, for example are words that might come up during a specific science lesson. Of course, these words should also be taught explicitly, but within a certain context.

Knowledge of tier two words can have a huge impact on someone’s oral and written language, so selecting these types of words to teach directly is extremely useful. During a read aloud, for instance, a teacher might introduce the word enormous to their kindergarten students. The teacher might touch the word and say, “this word says enormous”, then have their students say it altogether. The teacher might then tell the students what it means: “Enormous means very large”. With their students, the teacher might then ask if there are other words that mean very large. They might also use the word in a sentence or play I Spy and find objects around the classroom that are enormous. All of these strategies help children know a word, even very young children who can’t yet read the word. Meaning vocabulary and word consciousness are about supporting children’s oral language development. It’s the side of The Simple View of Reading dedicated to language comprehension which has direct links to background knowledge and, ultimately, to reading comprehension. When a teacher provides student-friendly definitions, discusses examples and non-examples of words, teaches multiple meanings, and links new words to words students already know, their students are becoming word conscious. The hope is that by fostering word consciousness, students are not only acquiring knowledge of words but they’re also gaining an interest in words. Instilling a love for words, language, and reading is something that teachers immediately talk about when I ask them about their literacy program and how they define literacy. When children are curious about words and have an awareness of the impact word choice can have on how a message is conveyed, their vocabulary is more likely to expand leading to improved communication and, ultimately, reading comprehension.

Additional articles of interest:

For the Love of Words: Fostering Word Consciousness in Young Readers, Graves and Watts-Taffe  

Which Words Are Worth Teaching? By Andrew Biemiller  
Becoming Word Conscious