By Lynette Harris Regional Instruction Coach, Central Region

“A rose by any other name” is a peony. Or a ranunculus. Or perhaps even a fern. Just like a girl who sashays is graceful, in contrast to a girl who clomps.

Vocabulary is how we communicate – it paints the colors in our everyday world. Working with our students, we can use vocabulary to paint illustrative pictures of words. How do you describe a villain walking? Slithered, slunk, stalked. How do we convey the grace of a dancer? Pirouette, prance, polka.

But what happens when students don’t know or understand enough words to add color to their everyday world? Some might suggest giving the student a dictionary. But supporting student vocabulary development is a bit more complex. Here’s why.

Words are seldom learned in isolation. Think about how babies learns words. We say the word to the baby again and again. When the baby says the word, we clap and smile. We ask the baby to use the word over and over. We help the baby connect the word to something or someone so that the baby “sees” the word and makes meaning of it. What a joy-filled context for learning words! As children grow older, vocabulary development continues to take place in a social context and is connected to how students are involved in physical contexts and what they already know.

Word knowledge increases more than our academic competence. Some early childhood research has found that lower vocabulary knowledge outcomes are associated with negative classroom behaviors. This suggests that when students have more words to express the many colors of their thoughts, emotions, and feelings, they may become more socially confident and competent.

Words are currency for thought and communication. Words give us power to think, speak, express opinions or ideas, create constructive arguments, read, explain, analyze and write. Vocabulary development is an investment in empowering students to communicate more effectively and to understand and engage in changes in the world around them.

However, the children City Year serves often enter school without enough vocabulary to paint word pictures or to share their feelings. By age 3, children living in poverty know 300 fewer words than children the same age from families of higher incomes. By second grade, the gap widens to about 4,000 fewer word. Without intentional vocabulary instruction, the gap will continue to grow. But if lists of words and a dictionary aren’t the answer, how can we support vocabulary development with the students we serve?

Here are a couple of tips that our City Year AmeriCorps members use at school with their students or parents and caretakers can use at home:

Word Walls: Word walls are more than just words on a wall. Word Walls, when used effectively, are active engagement with words. To learn more about word wall activities and how to create energy around vocabulary instruction, check out these great word wall games.

Word Jars:  You may be wondering how to select words for a word wall. By engaging students in using word jars – that’s one way! All you need to get started is a coffee can, a good book, and a reader! Find out more about Word Jars and other “nook and cranny” five-minute vocabulary instruction ideas here.

Golden Words or Phrases: Books are filled with “golden words or phrases.” These words or phrases paint wonderful pictures that you can see as you read. Ask students to find golden words or phrases as they read. As they find them, they can write the word or phrase on the window. Yes, I said window! This vocabulary exercise encourages students to read for details, to recognize imagery, and to want to engage in class. The added bonus is that you have sparkling windows at the conclusion of this special collection of words and phrases!

So, get those words on the wall – or window - and start engaging students in word play. Watch students’ self-confidence grow as they are surrounded by the words they need to paint the colors of their everyday world.


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