One of the most awe-inspiring processes to watch unfold is the vocabulary development of a young child. From the first utterance of “ball,” “mama,” or “more,” children are off and running, word wise. They are literal vocabulary sponges, growing their word bank exponentially in their first five years of life, typically using over 2,000 words in their everyday conversation by the time they walk through the doors of a school building. Not only that, but children understand that much more than they are able to express and have a receptive vocabulary ten times as large as their expressive word bank. A young child’s vocabulary just continues to grow through their school age years, as they acquire vocabulary through new experiences, interactions, and content. When asked how children have changed since starting school, parents often boast about their student’s vocabulary development, amazed at their ability to articulate ideas and express feelings with clarity and specificity.
So, when physical schooling as we know it came to a screeching halt in mid-March 2020, many parents were, understandably, concerned about sustaining students’ academic progress. Vocabulary development is, and continues to be, a tangible barometer of students’ learning. And, while this growth seemingly happens through the “magic” of school, rest assured there are easy and intuitive ways to continue to promote students’ vocabulary learning as distance learning and schooling continues within our own homes.
First and foremost, it is important to have a baseline understanding of what is important and relevant when thinking about vocabulary development and learning. Not all vocabulary or vocabulary instruction is created equal. When we think about vocabulary acquisition, Beck et al.’s tiered framework is particularly relevant and important when deciding what new words we should encourage students to use and understand.
The Three Tiers of Vocabulary Development
According to the framework, words can be thought about in three tiers:
Tier 1: These words are common words that students use on a daily and regular basis with family and friends. Happy, dinner, and friendship would all be considered Tier 1 words for most students. These are often not worth teaching as students naturally acquire Tier 1 vocabulary over time and through life experiences.
Tier 2: Words used across content areas that are important for students to use, know, and fully understand. These are often the words that garner compliments about having a “great vocabulary.” They are specific and precise and require repeated exposure and instruction to utilize. Investigate, complexity, and significance are examples of Tier 2 words. They are not rare or highly technical, but communicate ideas with clarity and precision.
Tier 3: Tier 3 words are content specific and infrequently used outside of their domain or field. These are the words often found in glossaries and subject matter textbooks. Proton, monarchy, and organism would all be considered Tier 3 vocabulary.
When thinking about boosting students’ vocabulary development, we really want to hone in on Tier 2 words. It is where we get the most bang for our bucks. While Tier 1 words are words students already know, Tier 3 words are too technical to encourage regular use and foster independent acquisition. Tier 2 words are precise, useful, and relevant across content areas. Students who utilize Tier 2 words well communicate ideas with clarity and conviction because they have a deep word bank that allows them to do so.
So, with this framework in mind, we can think about vocabulary development through three lenses at home: reading, playing, and working. By utilizing all three mediums to develop students’ word banks, we can foster language building that is authentic, engaging, and permanent.
Way to bolster vocabulary development at home:
Read, read, read. This seemingly goes without saying, but reading to and with your students is an amazing way to boost vocabulary development. Read alouds are a universally appealing vehicle for learning new words. When thinking about reading with vocabulary development in mind, it is important to think about text challenge and variety.
1. Pick challenging texts! There are many benefits to reading well worn and loved books to your student, but to boost students’ vocabulary acquisition, it is important to read books just above their own independent reading level. By reading books that they are not ready to read themselves, you are presenting the opportunity to hear words that they may not encounter in their own reading. Stop at these words and help students unpack their meaning in context and in the world outside of their book.
2. Read across content areas. It is important to tailor read alouds to students’ interests. But, it is also incredibly important to read a variety of genres and across topics and themes with students. Through exposure to varied content, students will hear and utilize words across content areas and text structures. Do not just limit read alouds experiences to books either–magazines, newspapers, and blogs all make for wonderful read aloud material and often open avenues for a variety of content and vocabulary specific conversation.
Play experiences provide endless opportunities for vocabulary development and growth.
1. Change up the scenery! If your children are invested in dramatic play, change out the accessories and toys to allow for varied experiences and, presumably, vocabulary exchanges. Empty grocery boxes or cans become a corner store while the addition of stuffed animals and a doctor’s kit is a great start to a veterinary office.
2. Play board games. There are so many fun family board games that lend themselves to vocabulary development. Apples to Apples, Headbands, Catch Phrase, and Scattegories are all easily found, fun games that encourage students to play with language and new words.
Working: Provide students with at-home work that encourages them to explore words.
1. Journal about reading. Encourage your students to keep a reading journal. This doesn’t need to be a burdensome or formal log of reading journeys, but rather a welcoming notebook to store musings, drawings, webs, and ideas. Incorporate a list of interesting, new, and exciting words into the journal. The more attuned students are to new words, the more likely they are to use them.
2. Provide fun opportunities to engage in vocabulary instruction. Programs and workbooks that encourage learning roots such as those offered by Scholastic and Words Their Way are engaging and effective ways to learn morphology. Or, consider signing up for a Flocabulary subscription. The website presents vocabulary instruction in an engaging and interactive way.