I recently watched a kindergarten teacher, Ms. R, deliver a virtual math lesson in the wake of school closures in the spring of 2020. As I watched and listened to her invite her kindergarteners to “become marine biologists and dive into the depths of the ocean,” I was reminded of the important role of vocabulary in all content areas, and especially in primary grades.
Although Ms. R’s lesson was only six minutes long and focused on mathematical problem solving, I think teachers of all grades and subject areas can take away some important lessons from her on how to teach vocabulary, whether you’re teaching virtually or in the classroom. Here are four components of effective vocabulary instruction, as exemplified in Ms. R’s class.
Give Explicit Instruction
Ms. R got her students excited for their math lesson by inviting them to be marine biologists. She told them they were going to solve math problems using different possibilities to get different quantities of species as they decompose numbers. Think about those four words she used: possibilities, quantities, species, and decompose.
Ms. R didn’t just use these vocabulary terms and rely on her kindergarteners to figure them out from context. Instead, she explicitly described what each of those words meant. For example, she reminded her students that possibilities was a word they had used the day before and that it meant there are different ways to solve a problem. She explained that species meant different types. Through pictures and corresponding number sentences, she demonstrated what decomposing numbers meant and looked like.
When teaching vocabulary, make sure to be explicit and use a variety of examples and models. Take time to discuss specific words both on their own and within the appropriate context, and clearly state their meaning and purpose.
Vocabulary instruction should also include repetition. When you introduce new words, make sure to use them often and explain them repeatedly until students begin using the words in context independently. For example, during the four minutes of specific math instruction (out of her six-minute video), Ms. R used the word quantities six times and the word possibilities four times.
Once you teach vocabulary in isolation (explicit instruction), it’s equally important to use it often in context (repetition). The more you use a word, the more you’ll remind students of its meaning, and the more likely students will remember and use the word appropriately. Repetition is key for all learning.
Raise the Bar
I have observed many teachers over the years, and one of my pet peeves is when teachers of young children or of children with disabilities “dumb down” their vocabulary. In other words, they use simple words rather than words with greater meaning and impact. For example, instead of teaching primary children to subtract, they might say they’re doing takeaways.
In contrast, Ms. R proved that using context-appropriate words is more powerful and impactful, as long as you teach the words explicitly and repeatedly. Yes, even kindergarten students can use the word decompose in math class and explain what it means.
Multiple studies have shown that three-year-olds from middle-class and affluent homes know more words than three-year-olds from lower socioeconomic homes. I think the stark contrast in children’s vocabularies comes from not only exposure, but also the number of conversations going on at home. As adults spend more and more time on their devices, more and more children will be coming to school with limited vocabulary. As a result, it’s even more important for teachers in the early years to use a high level of vocabulary.
If teachers are intentional about language instruction, children will model after them. Modeling includes practices such as speaking in complete sentences and using words correctly, both when you speak and when students give answers. Encourage students to respond in full sentences rather than one- or two-word answers, and prompt them to use content-specific vocabulary words.
Teachers should aim to raise the bar with the vocabulary they use, not lower it to meet assumed levels of acquisition. Young children’s brains are amazing sponges in their early years. Teachers of primary grades need to take advantage of this opportune time.
So how effective is Ms. R when she uses “big words” with kindergarteners? Having been her principal for 10 years and observing her teach on a regular basis, I can speak firsthand to the effectiveness of her instruction. Based on a variety of standardized reading assessments, Ms. R’s students regularly score higher than the other kindergarten classes. Not only do her students’ reading scores steadily improve from fall to spring, but her kindergarteners also use higher levels of vocabulary and hold facilitated discussions on a regular basis.
Take a cue from Ms. R and be a student of vocabulary. Students will either rise to the high levels you set for them or lower themselves when you set the bar low. Raise your vocabulary, be explicit, and repeat!