Once Upon a Time Vocabulary

When you hear those four magical words, "Once upon a time...," you are transported into a story's world.  You've probably heard reading to your child is good for language development. One reason listening to a story is good is that it helps him learn the "script" of a story. Listening to stories teaches a child about literary vocabulary - those words and phrases that we don't usually speak, but hear in stories. We don't generally speak phrases like "a land far away" and "happily ever after," but reading helps a child understand their meaning and later use them in narratives.

Listening to and reading stories helps a child learn to tell a story. When I teach storytelling (narratives), I uses this framework:

  1. Use a starting phrase: "one day," "long, long ago," or "once upon a time."
  2. Tell what the character usually does: everyday he _____.
  3. Something unusual happens: but today....
  4. What problem does this create?
  5. Now think of a solution to that problem.
  6. What happens in the end?
  7. Use an ending phrase: "the end," "they lived happily ever after," or "he learned his lesson"
We first practice this script with stories that are familiar: Three Little Pigs, Goldilocks and the Three Bears or Little Red Riding Hood. Once they are able to use this format with familiar stories, we move on to creating original stories (narratives). Analyze stories you are familiar with using this format and then create your own story. The next time you read a book (children or adult), analyze the story phrases see what figurative language our students are expected to understand.

Nicaraguan Surprise

I had the amazing blessing of going to Nicaragua for a
mission trip two weeks ago. The land is beautiful. The faces of so many are
beautiful. The financial poverty is astounding, with many there making less
than a dollar a day in income. The educational need is great. Although there is
a public school system, it seems many parents choose not to send their children
because, “I never went, why should I send my children?” or, “I need my child
here with me picking trash so we can afford to eat this week,” or, even more
surprisingly, “I don’t have money to buy a uniform for my child, so I won’t
send him” (although uniforms are not required, they are encouraged).

I had the opportunity to build friendships with several
families and their children through a local church initiative.  Their physical hunger is being addressed
through the non-profit organization. 
However, I found it interesting to see the hunger the children had to
learn English.  I did not realize that
knowledge of English can be a ticket out of living in the trash dumps for these
children. And English is only taught in private lessons or in private-pay
schools, so very few children have the opportunity. 
What an amazing time we had playing games like Uno and baseball. They had fun looking at photos and videos on my iPad where they found our InferCabulary app.

It was an incredible opportunity for me to
watch how the visual method really did work for someone who did not know any

Our focus has been on how
InferCabulary helps students with learning disabilities, but I was amazed at
how quickly and accurately these girls were at inferring what words like
“boulder” and “perplexed” meant, without my needing to explain or define the
words in their language.  They enjoyed
using their visual inference skills to guess, and kept asking for more words.  

This opportunity made me realize our need to assess the efficacy and
value of using the InferCabulary method with those learning English as a second
language.  We look forward to working
with the program, and remain hopeful that we may get to play at least a small part
in opening doors to a better life for these children.  I know my life was changed by spending time with them.

Taking Vocabulary Instruction to the Next Level

I think we can all agree that vocabulary instruction needs to reach more students at a deeper level. How do we do that? Take it to the next level. 

In Bringing Words to Life, the authors, Beck & McKeown, give an example of instruction for younger grades with the word reluctant from the book A Pocket for Corduroy. In the story Lisa is reluctant to the laundromat without Corduroy.  Here is what Beck & McKeown recommend:

  1. Read the context of the word reluctant.
  2. Give a child-friendly definition of reluctant - not sure you want to do something.
  3. Repeat the word, practicing its pronunciation.
  4. Give examples in context talking about a time you were reluctant to do something.
  5. Ask students what they would be reluctant to do and replies are phrased using the word: I would be reluctant to _____.

Moving beyond the context of the word into real life examples, helps students construct "a meaningful and memorable representation of the word." 

Go a step further and use the InferCabulary method by adding pictures to help students understand what reluctant looks like. In the picture on the right, the girl is reluctant to eat her vegetables - something all kids can relate to.

Taking vocabulary instruction to the next level means taking the word from the everyday mundane classroom exercises and putting into a context that applies to everyday life with examples they will remember - the sillier and funnier, the better!

Toddler Vocabulary Predicts Success

Vocabulary is the best single indicator or intellectual ability and an accurate predictor of success at school. - W.B. Elley

Engaging with your toddler, reading books and talking with them about their world has never been more important. A new study in the journal aptly named Child Development found that children who had good oral vocabularies (what they could express) by age two were better prepared kindergarteners academically and behaviorally than others in their classroom.

They noticed gaps in oral vocabulary began emerging as early as two years of age. That means its important for parents and preschool teachers to spend some time engaging with toddlers in activities that will expand the 2-year-olds' vocabularies. So how do we do this?

Tanya Christ and X. Christine Wang developed a list in Supporting Preschoolers' Vocabulary Learning based on current research. I've paired examples from The Little Blue Truck, by Alice Schertle.

1.  Point and label - direct the child's attention to the word and say the word. This helps the child connect the word and the image. For example, point to the word "road" on the story page and then point to the picture of the road in the book. As you read the story, point to the words related to the animals the little truck sees: a frog, a sheep, etc. Taking care to point to the words and images, so the child can see the relationship between the words and images.

2.  Ask questions that require a use of the word - As you read a book with your child or students, ask a comprehension question to see if they use the word thereby creating a memory of the word's sounds. For example, "What does a farmer use to carry hay and supplies from one place to another?" and the answer is "a truck."

3.  Ask questions that require using related words to help the child establish a relationship between the vocabulary word and closely related words. You could say, "A truck is a kind of ____ " and vehicle would be the answer. Name some other vehicles that take you from one place to another. What other vehicles would a farmer use?

4.  Give short definitions - explain the meaning in a short, child-friendly definition to help promote understanding. The original story begins, "Horn went 'Beep!'. Engine purred. Friendliest sounds you ever heard." Explain that when an engine "purrs," it means the truck is working well. 

5.  Use extended approaches - provide opportunities for the child to process and use the words in a deeper way. Talk about the animals the little blue truck passed on the road. What other animals could it have seen that aren't in the story? What sounds would they make?  What does a ship see as it sails along? ...and on and on.

The point is as soon as a child can attend to a book, keep in mind that vocabulary is very important to their successes in kindergarten and beyond. Pay particular attention to children at risk. Their parents are struggling to put food on the table and may not have the time to interact with their young ones which may result in smaller vocabularies. Preschools and HeadStart programs should put vocabulary high on their list.

It's a Context Thing

Although using context clues to determine vocabulary meaning is not always effective (not all sentences provide context clues), this is an important skill for students to cultivate for the occasions where authors are kind enough to include them.  We need to overtly teach students to seek out context clues the author may have provided.

Looking before and after the novel
word is a good place to start searching for clues.  Blachowicz and Fisher, authors of Teaching Vocabulary in All Classrooms, suggest several techniques that will help students use context clues that are present before and after the word to determine word meanings.

Sometimes authors provide definitions. For example, "The dermatologist, the skin doctor, identified the problem."  Sometimes they provide clues about what the word is not. For example, Unlike a bicycle, a moped has a small engine. Other times there are location or setting clues, such as, "the mountaineers reached the summit after a brutal all day climb."  Authors sometimes provide a clue when they explain how something happens, like, "She masticated her burger into tiny pieces and swallowed it."  There can be hints within the sentence regarding the function of the word. For example, "in order to keep it from fraying, the worker placed an aglet on the end of the shoelace."  Finally, an author might provide clues about a word by sharing related words or ideas.  For example, At the wake, mourners cried, prayed, and celebrated the life of the deceased.

Learning vocabulary requires time spent reading, review, and overt instruction. Searching for clues within a sentence will not always lead a student to understand novel words in literature. However, when clues are present, only students who realize the power of these clues will be able to successfully determine novel word meaning.

Back to School Vocabulary Strategies

While kids and parents are scrambling for school supplies, lunch boxes and backpacks, I am scrambling to get my students organized for learning vocabulary this year.
I start preparing my students over the summer break. They learn low tech vocabulary strategies with index cards. The word on the front and definition on the back. A visual cue on the front to promote memory and other ideas from my bag of tricks to enhance retrieval.
Next, we go high tech with an online vocabulary storage, like Quizlet or Study Stack. Why go high tech? Kids never lose their vocabulary cards and words this way. They are stored permanently in their account until they delete them. Words learned in September are stored online for review in January when they have midterms. Pictures can be added for each word and the cards can be printed out. Teachers can share word lists with their students and students can create groups with other students in their class to collaborate.
By starting early, we ensure students are starting off the school year with effective strategies tailored for their learning style and preferences rather than on the fly when students are stressed.

The Word Gap

There is no such thing as starting too early on your child's vocabulary skills. Twenty years ago two researchers, Betty Hart and Todd Risley "The Early Catastrophe" study showed that some three year old children heard 30 million less words than others. 30 million - wow! This has been called the "thirty million words project" or "word gap." Parents can help their young children (infants and toddlers) stay ahead of the game.

Start reading early. I read to my children by 5 months of age. They sat in my lap and helped me turn the pages of the board book. As they grew older, we graduated to different levels of books. We read signs as we walked around town and passed them on the highway.

Talk about what you are doing. If you are making cookies or building a birdhouse, talk about what what you are using and doing. They will hear words specific to each activity and add to  their vocabulary with each interaction.

Make up Stories. Use your imagination creating a variety of stories. They'll start to notice stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. Eventually, they will notice each story has a problem and a solution. They'll hear words specific to each story setting.

Experience the world. Go on field trips to the zoo, aquarium, grocery store, library, and park. Talk about what you see and do.

Each interaction builds your child's vocabulary and gives them a leg up on language and don't widen the "word gap."

If your child doesn't recognize letters by age 2 or 3 years of age this could be an early sign of reading and/or language difficulties. Most children recognize letters and the sounds they make by age 4 or 5. If you suspect a language problem, contact your local school for information on how to get your child's speech and language tested. You can also go to the American Speech Language Hearing Association's website to find a speech language pathologist near you. Early intervention is the key to closing the gap.

Drawing Attention to Vocabulary

What therapy tools could I not live without? My iPad is one, but even more basic than that is paper and colored pencils. A student walks in my office having difficulty with vocabulary, reading comprehension or understanding a concept from one of their classes and I roll over (literally, in my chair) to the colored pencils and snag a piece of white copy paper from the printer...and off we go.

I am a terrible artist, but if I can't draw it you can bet my student can. We laugh about how bad I am at drawing, but even the horrible scribble I draw sticks with them - because it's so absurd they remember.  If it's a vocabulary word, we are drawing pictures on their flash cards. If it's a lesson concept, we are drawing more expansive representations to solidify the concepts. If it's a story, I am mapping out the story on paper and "drawing" attention to underlying meaning in the story. We break down the "big picture" or "gestalt" into smaller pieces so they can see how the parts relate to the whole story.

Why does this work? iCare4Autism published an article, Enhancing Reading Comprehension through Intensive Training last month. They highlight research by the University of Alabama researchers who studied 31 children with autism. These children were average readers, but had low comprehension skills. They used visual aids to help the children broaden their knowledge of vocabulary words and recorded neurological changes using MRIs. "By the end of the study, it was evident that children that participated in the intensive training had stronger connectivity within the language network."

I've known using visual aids and drawing pictures with colored pencils and markers improves my students' understanding of words and broadens their meanings. The study acknowledge the usefulness of visual aids with images of the brain. So add some color to your treatment sessions and break out the colored pencils.

Our vocabulary apps, InferCabulary and WordQuations, use beautiful photographs and video, because students benefit from visuals in a variety of forms.