Teachers can use intentionally designed learning opportunities to help children develop vocabulary. These are lessons created with specific desired outcomes for children, in this case, learning new words and using them correctly.
Intentionally designed vocabulary lessons are different from simple exposure, which is when children hear a new word, but it is not defined or discussed. Instead, intentionally designed vocabulary lessons involve the teacher’s carefully selecting vocabulary words; using child-friendly definitions, pictures, and objects to explain what the words mean; and creating many opportunities for children to hear and use the words again.
Teachers can use intentionally designed opportunities to teach vocabulary throughout the day.
Intentionally designed vocabulary lessons include
determining a specific vocabulary learning outcome that will guide the preparation and delivery of the lesson;
providing repeated exposure to authentic, carefully chosen words that are introduced using child-friendly definitions, pictures found online, and/or objects;
encouraging word consciousness;
using new words purposefully when talking with children, either words that expand children’s vocabulary or that children have just used;
choosing read-aloud stories with a similar theme, which gives children the chance to hear the same new words many times;
choosing read-aloud stories with text and pictures that give hints about a word’s meaning;
defining words during a read-aloud or at the time of use so that children hear and discuss the words in context;
asking children questions about new words and their meanings during read-alouds (including questions that require children to use the vocabulary word or its definition in the answer);
providing extended instruction, which includes multiple steps to help children develop a deep understanding of a word;
following up read-alouds with instruction (which may be extended instruction) where children have many chances to use the word correctly; and
developing a set of lessons on a single topic that might include read-alouds, conversations, centers, and projects during which children can use newly learned words (Christ & Wang, 2010, pp. 86-90).
Intentionally designed vocabulary lessons do NOT include
reading a story with new words that are not defined or used again;
introducing and defining words that are not used again in other parts of the day; or
introducing words children would not use or be interested in learning.
Vocabulary support in the state guidelines
You and your staff will find support for developing intentionally designed vocabulary lessons in the state guidelines. They provide examples of desired vocabulary outcomes and many teaching strategies for helping children achieve them.
The Texas Prekindergarten Guidelines (Updated 2015) have a Vocabulary Skills section in the Language and Communications domain. Vocabulary standards are also embedded in other domains of the prekindergarten guidelines. For example, desired outcomes in the Social and Emotional Development domain are for children to learn feeling words such as happy, sad, mad, and scared and use them to name their own feelings. Teachers can support this learning through modeling; for example, they might say, “Please sit down, Diego. I am worried that you might fall” (Texas Education Agency, 2015, p. 36).
Vocabulary standards are also embedded throughout the Texas Infant, Toddler, and Three-Year-Old Early Learning Guidelines. In the Communication and Speaking domain, for example, caregiver suggestions include naming objects in the children’s environment. In the Cognitive Development domain, they include naming body parts (Children’s Learning Institute, 2013, pp. 54, 65).
Selecting and teaching vocabulary words
Your teachers will find some suggested vocabulary words in the standards, and others may be indicated in your chosen curriculum. Teachers may also need to choose vocabulary words on their own. Words should not be chosen at random. Instead, they should be relevant to what children are learning, doing, or interested in. Teachers might ask these questions as they choose vocabulary words for instruction:
Is this word important for children to know to understand the story, lesson, or activity?
Will children use the word in other contexts?
Is the word related to other words or ideas children are learning?
Will the word be new to most children I am teaching?
Teachers will need to consider the age of children in their classroom when choosing and defining words and may need to adjust definitions for younger children. Teachers will also need to keep in mind that children’s experiences and backgrounds vary. Sometimes, teaching a new word may also involve introducing a new concept or something children have never seen. For example, children who have never visited or seen a beach might have no concept of shells or waves. A teacher who is defining the words shell and waves for these children will also need to use pictures and extended descriptions to introduce the words.
The following scenario shows the value of intentional design when introducing a new word to children.
Scenario: Ms. Lee was reading a book to her two-year-old class and came upon the word snow. The children were unfamiliar with the word and had never seen snow. While Ms. Lee knew what the word meant, she struggled to find the words to define snow in a way that her students would understand it.
Later, a director who observed the lesson pointed out that planning vocabulary instruction would have helped Ms. Lee with this part of her lesson. The director explained that Ms. Lee could find a simple definition in a children’s dictionary, as well as a picture of a snowy scene. Ms. Lee could briefly introduce the definition and concept to children before the read-aloud. Then, she could discuss the word in an extended lesson with children after reading. She also could plan other lessons throughout the day so that children could hear the word snow in many contexts.
Ms. Lee and the director discussed other stories, poems, and songs with the word snow in them. They also brainstormed some fun snow-related activities, such as using snowflake cutouts when counting, having a pretend snowball fight during recess, and creating a snowman using different shapes during math time. Ms. Lee used these strategies to teach the word snow the next day, and she now uses a similar routine any time she introduces a new word.
Extended vocabulary lessons with read-alouds
During extended lessons after a read-aloud, teachers can use several steps to help children learn more about vocabulary words. It is helpful for teachers to have a specific routine they can use after each read-aloud, which might include discussing the word as it is used in the story, defining the word, having children say the word out loud, and giving children examples of how the word might be used in other contexts (Christ & Wang, 2010, p. 88). Teachers should adapt their routines when teaching younger or older children.
The following lesson for children ages 18–36 months shows how a teacher might provide intentionally designed vocabulary instruction after a read-aloud. In the previous example, the teacher and director discussed introducing words before a read-aloud; in this case, the teacher chooses to introduce the words after the read-aloud, which is also acceptable. What is important is to be purposeful about introducing new words and looking for chances to use them throughout the day. Notice how the teacher plans the sequence of introducing the new words and offers many chances for children to use them over the next week.
The teacher says, “Now that we have read this book, let’s take a look at some words you might not know that are mentioned in the story. Learning these words will help you understand the story even better than before.”
The teacher then shows children vocabulary cards. Each card has a word from the story and a photograph on it. She asks children to repeat each word and tell what they already know about it. She encourages children to answer using complete sentences by modeling complete sentences herself. She plans to review these words each day of the week with the goal that by the end of the week, the children can say each word after hearing the definition or seeing the picture card.
The teacher then uses the “Say-Tell-Do” routine from the CIRCLE Preschool Early Language and Literacy Teacher’s Manual (Children’s Learning Institute, 2009) to teach children each vocabulary word:
She has the children SAY the word. She asks them to say it in different voices such as fast, slow, like a squeaky mouse, and like a big bear.
She TELLS children the definition of the word, showing them the vocabulary card with the word and a photograph illustrating the word on it. Even though most of her children cannot read, showing the card helps create a print-rich environment.
She has children DO an action or gesture that demonstrates the meaning of the word (if appropriate). For the word hide, for example, she has children act like the word by squatting down and covering their heads, as if they are trying not to be seen.
The teacher then looks for opportunities for children to use the vocabulary words throughout the day and week. These include adding the words to a letter wall, playing a fishing game where children “catch” the first letter of each word, learning about opposites, and drawing and talking about a picture of one or more scenes from the story.
(Lesson adapted from Lesson Planning With Books [Vaughn Gross Center, 2015])
The lesson and goals can be adapted for younger and older children. After the read-aloud, younger children could hold and play with the vocabulary cards while the teacher discusses the words and asks children to say the words, which they may or may not be able to do. A goal for older children could be to say the first vocabulary words without prompting when shown a vocabulary card later in the week.
Vocabulary instruction for infants and young toddlers
Rich vocabulary instruction is equally important for younger children. For children age 0–2, it might include the names of objects in a child’s surroundings and noticing and naming objects that catch a child’s attention. It could also include giving children real or plastic objects or images to hold, touch, and play with and talking to them about the words. Asking children to say a new word, even if they do not respond or make only a sound, is also appropriate instruction for this age group.
Interaction with these very young children sets the foundation for their later language growth and development. Even very small actions can be significant when it comes to children’s growth, and nothing happens in isolation. For example, it might seem insignificant or unrelated to receptive language skills that an infant turns towards sounds or voices. However, this skill is an important milestone in a child’s language development. An infant’s ability to turn towards sounds or voices is a foundational skill for later being able to listen, comment, and ask and answer questions.
Additional ways to support vocabulary development
In addition to using planned vocabulary instruction, teachers should also be on the lookout throughout the day for teachable moments. Teachable moments are unplanned opportunities to teach new words or have a conversation using newly learned words. For example, when a child is upset, a teacher might use the opportunity to discuss “feeling” words, saying something like “Valerie, I can see that you are impatient and want to go outside right now. Remember when we read about the puppy being impatient while he was waiting for his food? He wanted to eat right then, but he had to wait until it was time. We will be able to go outside in about 10 minutes.”
Teachers can also support vocabulary development by creating a print-rich classroom. A print-rich classroom has meaningful connected print, including pictures and words related to subjects children are learning about. A print-rich classroom would also include
labeled objects in the room, for example “window” and “bookshelf”;
posters with poems or rhymes;
students’ names; and
letter walls, where teachers add definitions and pictures of new words under letters of the alphabet.
Assessment of vocabulary development in children age 0 to school entry is usually not formal but instead involves the teacher’s ongoing observation of each child’s word use. Teachers should listen to children, notice how they use words, and look for opportunities to build on children’s vocabulary use. For example, Ms. McKenzie observes the children in her classroom playing with the plastic farm animals and vegetables in the home living center. She notices that Isabella is calling the horse figurine “cow.” Ms. McKenzie calls Isabella over to her and asks her about the figurine. Isabella again tells her that it is a cow. Ms. McKenzie then says, “It is somewhat like a cow because it is a farm animal and has four legs, but this animal is a horse. Horses have a longer neck, a mane, and a flowing tail. Cows are animals used for milk or meat. This one here is a cow. See how they are different?”
TO LEARN MORE: To learn more about planning vocabulary instruction, you may want to review the following sources:
The full article referenced in this lesson, “Bridging the Vocabulary Gap: What the Research Tells Us about Vocabulary Instruction in Early Childhood,” is available on the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) website.
The Texas Infant, Toddler, and Three-Year-Old Early Learning Guidelines are available in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese.
The Texas Prekindergarten Guidelines (Updated 2015) are available in English.
The Early Childhood Outcomes and Prekindergarten Guidelines Alignment provides instructional support for children with special needs. The Vocabulary section (part D) of the Language and Communication domain includes descriptions of age-appropriate foundation skills and differentiating instruction for children who have been identified as having learning differences.
The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English online is a helpful resource for developing child-friendly definitions of vocabulary words.
NEXT STEPS: Depending on your progress in planning and providing intentionally designed vocabulary instruction, you may want to consider the following next steps:
Read the state guidelines and share and discuss the vocabulary standards and instructional strategies with your staff.
Identify vocabulary instruction in your current curriculum and materials.
Identify additional resources and help teachers create lessons that address gaps in vocabulary instruction in your programs or curriculum.
Support instructional staff in observing and building on children’s use of vocabulary.
Assess needs for and plan professional development on the state guidelines, intentionally designed opportunities for children to develop vocabulary, and additional resources.