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Six steps to explicit vocabulary development

Discussion of reading instruction — which started with a look at the Core Knowledge Reading Program (CKRP) being piloted in NYC this year — has really taken off, with commenters raising important questions: How does the content in CKRP differ from what’s being read now? What about helping children understand syntax? Does vocabulary development in Science differ from other subject areas?

While I look into those issues, here’s a technique one Queens teacher uses to help her students learn new words. Katie Kurjakovic, an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher at P.S. 11 in Queens, illustrates the problem with an anecdote:

A second-grade teacher was preparing to read a story about George Washington’s wife, Martha, to her class. She anticipated all the unfamiliar vocabulary she thought they would encounter. She told them what colonies and colonists were. She spoke of the American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence. Then, shortly after she began reading, a girl raised her hand with a puzzled look on her face. “What’s a wife?” she asked.

Kurjakovic uses a six-step process to explicitly teach vocabulary to her English Language Learners. Before reading a text, she identifies and introduces (“previews”) new vocabulary for her students, then she reads the text, uses the words in the context of the text and then in a new context, and finally gives her students an opportunity to use the words. This method, grounded in research by Isabel Beck and colleagues, could be used outside of the ESL context by teachers of all subject areas, as many children across the city need explicit vocabulary development well into middle and high school.

Read this article in American Educator by Beck, McKeown, and Kucan for additional examples of the kind of conversations that promote rich vocabulary development. The authors emphasize that students’ reading comprehension lags behind their comprehension of oral language until the middle grades, so read-alouds and discussion are important for improving language skills.

Looking at the CKRP sample materials, I see a similar process at work for building vocabulary. A few vocabulary words are discussed, with a definition given and opportunities for the children to come up with their own sentences using these words. Other possible vocabulary words are highlighted in the text for the teacher to discuss if desired.

In addition, the texts are grouped into “domains” so that teachers spend a few weeks on a particular topic, one day’s new ideas and words building on the previous day’s. And children get to choose their favorite read-alouds to be re-read, much as children beg their parents to read favorite stories night after night.

Is this so different from what K-2 teachers do anyway? asks commenter Smith. Early grades teachers, what’s your take?

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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