Infusing New and Rare Words
Prekindergarten students need to be frequently and intentionally exposed to two major categories of words: root words and rare words. The "root" is generally a common word and meaning that is learned through word parts. When the root word is coupled with a prefix or suffix it can change the meaning, but there is still some familiarity or connection from knowledge of meaning of the root word. For example, the word "fish (pez)" can serve as the root of "fisherman (pescador)," "fishing (pesca)," or "fishy (pescado)."
On CLI Engage's online professional development course, Building Vocabulary, expert commentator Dr. Kathleen Roskos speaks about the time windows theory. Essentially, the theory states that there is a narrow window of time during which a teacher must repeatedly expose her students to new words to help them retain meaning. These frequent exposures serve as important opportunities for students to use new words in conversation and in learning settings rather than simple memorization drills.
Research has shown that the brain stores related words together. Using positron emission tomography (PET) scans, scholars found that when the subjects were asked to name persons, animals, or tools, the same area of the brain was activated. It seems that the brain stores closely associated words together, allowing us to quickly pull meaning from these related words (Sousa, 2014).
New vocabulary words need to be introduced deliberately and repeatedly, and children need to be given opportunities to use the words in related contexts so the word can be used authentically and knowledgeably by the child (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2008). A wide variety of books of different genres, including informational and non-fiction books, provide a great source for rich language. Teachers can also use different classroom themes to give children an opportunity to connect related words and learn a collection of words that relate to a particular topic.
Rare words are sophisticated words that mature language users know and that you often find in written language. For young children, rare words are often unfamiliar words and words that are used to describe specific places, objects, people, situations, or events. Though they don't often come up in everyday conversation, rare words are essential to understanding and discussing specific topics, exploring academic disciplines, and setting the stage for ongoing learning (Read About Vocabulary Development 1 and 2, n.d.).
Some rare words are more universal and could be used to discuss any topic. This includes words like "curious," "fear," "clever," "fetched," or "astonished." Other words are specific to a particular discipline like music, science, math, engineering, or a particular theme. Words like "piano," "globe," "architect," "triangle," "pattern," or "chipmunk" are domain-specific rare words that also increase the range of things that children know and can say about the world.
These words should be introduced in context such as through a read aloud. The teacher should use the context in which the word was introduced to begin instruction including providing child-friendly definitions. Students then have a connection on which to build meaning. The more frequent encounters with the word, the greater likelihood the student will retain meaning of new and rare words.
Generally, root and rare words are of equal importance for children's vocabulary development. But for prekindergarten children who come from less literacy-rich and lower income homes, exposure to rare words—words they may not hear outside of school—is most crucial. Furthermore, because instructional time is scarce, teachers may choose to give more extended instructional time to universal rare words that can be used across a variety of disciplines, because children are likely to get a lot of ‘mileage’ out of these words (Read About Vocabulary Development 1 and 2, n.d.).
As teachers, we need to provide children with frequent and meaningful opportunities to learn new and rare words. Center activities, circle time, lunchtime, the playground, transitions, and informal conversations throughout the day can all be used as times to reinforce new vocabulary.
- Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2008). Creating robust vocabulary: Frequently asked questions and extended examples (Vol. 10). Guilford Press.
- Sousa, D. A. (2014). How the brain learns to read. Corwin Press.
- Read About Vocabulary Development 1 and 2. Building Vocabulary eCIRCLE Online Course. Published on cliengage.org.
Tips for Introducing New Vocabulary Words
- Recognizing opportunities to introduce new words.
- Selecting words that are meaningful.
How: Use a combination of strategies, repeat new words and concepts in several contexts, and recognize teachable moments to introduce meaningful words.
When: Initially introduce core concepts targeted to entire class during group settings. Then, introduce appropriate vocabulary during ongoing, one-on-one conversations with children and while providing enhanced descriptions of children’s activities.
- Define words verbally.
- Provide examples or comparisons.
- Use concrete words to label objects.
- Use words to express relational and categorical concepts. For example, “This mango is a fruit. So are strawberries. What else is a fruit?”
- Demonstrate concepts with appropriate words and or props.
If the dramatic play area always retains a housekeeping them, the dialogues and play routines become fairly predictable and fewer children find it appealing. Teachers can retain the excitement and appeal by changing the props, costumes, and furniture arrangements. By assuming a pretend role in this setting and modeling the appropriate language through active dialogue, the teacher indirectly facilitates the correct use of props, expands children’s knowledge about this real world place, models appropriate social dialogue, and introduces new vocabulary and language forms (Wilcox, Murphy, Bacon, & Thomas, 2001).
- Wilcox, M. J., Murphy, K. M., Bacon, C. K., & Thomas, S. (2001). Improving language teaching practices in preschool classrooms. Infant Child Research Programs.