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A reading from the CD accompanying

Developmentally Appropriate Practice in

Early Childhood Programs Serving Children
from Birth through Age 8, Third Edition.

Creating Classrooms That Promote Rich
Vocabularies for At-Risk Learners

Deanna L. Nekovei and Shirley A. Ermis

Reprinted from the September 2006 edition of Young Children

Curriculum: Language

National Association for the Education of Young Children

No permission is required to excerpt or make copies for distribution at no cost. For

academic copying by copy centers or university bookstores, contact Copyright Clearance
Center’s Academic Permissions Service at 978-750-8400 or For other
uses, email NAEYC’s permissions editor at
Creating Classrooms
That Promote
Rich Vocabularies
for At-Risk Learners
Deanna L. Nekovei and Shirley A. Ermis

YOUNG CHILDREN DO NOT ACQUIRE ORAL track cues that provide information have a learning or reading disability
LANGUAGE EFFORTLESSLY. Language de- about the give-and-take of conversa- or may be language delayed. Re-
velopment is a complex task involving, tion and listener emotion as well as search (Beck & McKeown 1991)
first and foremost, an inner desire to other forms of nonverbal feedback. shows that, whatever the reason,
communicate with others. Language For example, eye contact is impor- while school-age children who per-
development also requires the ability tant; it usually means that someone is form at lower levels learn one or two
to hear and make sense out of the listening to what we have to say. words per day, their higher achieving
sounds, words, and phrases of spo- Language customs and conventions peers learn seven or eight. This
ken language. In addition, children play a part in children’s language pattern of limited versus rich vocabu-
must acquire the ability to visually learning. For example, in some cul- lary growth appears to hold regard-
tures children are to remain silent less of when vocabulary is measured
and not talk with adults frequently; in from first grade to grade twelve
Deanna L. Nekovei, EdD, was an asso- others, children are encouraged to (Baker, Simmons, & Kameenui 1995).
ciate professor at Texas A&M University– fully participate in conversation. To Thus, children whose language skills
Kingsville. She was very active in early
acquire good oral language skills, are behind in kindergarten (those
childhood education, conducting re-
search and serving as director of the young children must be savvy lan- with vocabularies below the range of
King Ranch Family Trust Early Education guage processors. between 2,500 and 5,000 words) tend
Center. Deanna died on May 3, 2005. Some language learners acquire to stay behind throughout their lives
Shirley A. Ermis, EdD, is an associate words at a much slower rate than (Baker, Simmons, & Kameenui 1995).
professor in the Department of Curriculum others. These children may come The good news is that empirical
and Instruction at Texas A&M University– from homes that lack reading and evidence shows that “students who
Kingsville. Shirley has conducted re-
search and published articles in reading writing materials or from families begin school behind typical peers in
with a special emphasis on early literacy. with limited English and/or reading important areas such as vocabulary
This project was funded through a proficiency skills. Some children may and language development can
Regents’ Initiative Collaborative Re-
search Grant from the Institute for
School-University Partnerships Academy A good early care and education program can have an
for Educator Development and through
endowment funds from the King Ranch impact on children’s vocabulary development by provid-
Family Trust Early Education Center.
Thanks to Velma Longoria, MEd,
ing meaningful, rich language opportunities and by
prekindergarten teacher at Harrel El- increasing the amount of talk in the classroom.
ementary School in Kingsville, Texas.

90 Young Children • September 2006

The use of extended dis- relationships within and between
areas (Yorks & Follo 1993; Schubert &
course enhances the devel- Melnick 1997; Lonning & DeFranco
opment of oral language. 1998; Smallwood 2000). Thematic
instruction also considers the spe-
cific needs of learners and supports
four-year-olds in a predominantly them in their language and literacy
Mexican American community in efforts (Bergeron et al. 1996).
South Texas. All of the preschoolers The project approach takes the-
come from homes with low incomes, matic instruction further, involving
and several are English language the child in the decision-making
learners. Specifically, we look at how process—from what to study to how
Ms. Longoria and her class begin the to go about studying it and where to
year exploring the fall season. They take the investigation from there.
continue a study of the four seasons Projects typically have a research
throughout the school year. focus and engage the children in
problem solving (Helm & Katz 2001).
© Shari Schmidt

The project approach can be used in

What is rich vocabulary? a standards-based classroom to make
learning interesting and meaningful to
Children with rich vocabularies are
young children (Helm 2003).
children who know lots of words
(Brabham & Villaume 2002). Not only
master basic reading skills as quickly are their vocabularies extensive, but
and as well as typical peers under they also reflect an understanding of
Most word knowledge is
optimal instructional conditions” interrelated concepts that they can gained indirectly through
(Carnine, Silbert, & Kameenui 1990, use flexibly to figure out the meaning
cited in Baker, Simmons, & Kameenui of new words. Children with rich
participation in everyday
1995, 1). A good early care and educa- vocabularies also delight in learning experiences at home and
tion program can have an impact on new words and putting together
children’s vocabulary development known words to form a new meaning
in educational settings.
by providing meaningful, rich lan- or to play on the words (as often
guage opportunities and by increas- mirrored in the jokes they tell). Embracing thematic instruction
ing the amount of talk in the class- But how does a child acquire such
room (Hart & Risley 2002). The use of a rich vocabulary? Evidence suggests As an early childhood educator,
extended discourse—that is, talking that rich vocabulary is developed Ms. Longoria understands the value
with children in ways that build on through of literature-based, thematic in-
what they say and that take their struction. She finds that the four-
• literature-based thematic instruction,
words beyond the here and now— year-olds in her classroom benefit
enhances the development of oral • background knowledge, from reinforcement and repetition
language (Dickinson & Tabors 2002). • oral language, and as she continuously relates new
For example, in response to a • read-alouds. words and concepts to overriding
question such as “What did you do themes. While using the project
Each of these four elements is high-
today at school?” a child is likely to approach to explore themes such as
lighted in the pages that follow, with a
say “Nothin’.” More specific questions fall, she ensures that the children
description of how Ms. Longoria ad-
such as “What fun things did you do gain essential knowledge and skills
dressed it with her class.
today outside with your friends?” in preparation for kindergarten.
prompt a fuller response and open up As Ms. Longoria encourages the
opportunities for asking, for example, The role of literature-based, children to take initiative in their own
“How do you play_____?” and encour- thematic instruction learning, she is aware that many of
age more complex conversations. them have had limited experiences
This article examines ways that one Early childhood educators know due to their age and the fact that
prekindergarten teacher enhances that literature-based, thematic teach- they come from economically disad-
children’s vocabulary growth in her ing offers young children unified vantaged homes that have limited
classroom. Velma Longoria teaches 15 information, allowing them to see language and literacy resources.

Young Children • September 2006 91

Therefore, she tries to create an envi-
ronment in which the children can
acquire a common set of vocabulary
words and experiences. This founda-
tion enables the children to pose
questions, problem solve, and fully
explore their environment and sub-
ject matter.

The role of background

It is through participation that
young children learn to communicate
with others. “We do not learn most of
our words by looking them up in a
Barbara Bent/© NAEYC

dictionary. Rather, we learn them in

the context of our experiences”
(Hodges 1984, 2). Although children
learn some words through direct
instruction, most word knowledge is
gained indirectly through participa-
tion in everyday experiences at home
and in educational settings (Baumann between vocabulary in texts and empanadas (Mexican pastries
& Kameenui 1991; National Reading their own personal backgrounds. that have become a mainstay in
Panel 2000; Partnership for Reading South Texas). Due to classroom
2001). “Incidental learning opportuni- time constraints, she decides not
ties take place as parents and Setting the stage to make empanadas with the
caregivers read aloud and carry on children, but she does buy some
conversations about everyday life During the last week in September, and passes them around.
and as children engage in all kinds of Ms. Longoria’s class discusses pump- The class settles in to read It’s
play—including play with words” kins. The children say pumpkins are Pumpkin Time! by Zoe Hall. Knowing
(Brabham & Villaume 2002, 265). big, round, and orange, and that they that many of her children have lim-
Further, children learn best when get them at Halloween. Pumpkins ited book experience and find it
they can both study word meanings are not generally grown commer- difficult to sit for a story, Ms.
and use the words in context (Baker, cially in South Texas, so a visit to a Longoria uses the empanadas to
Simmons, & Kameenui 1995). “Build- pumpkin patch is not possible; but focus the children’s attention in a
ing new concepts through experience children say they see them at the concrete and pleasant way and also
provides necessary foundations for grocery store. as a tie-in to their Hispanic culture.
learning new words” (Brabham & The conversation turns to Hallow- Following the reading, the children
Villaume 2002, 267). Children need een, to the custom of carving pump- want to turn the pumpkin into a jack-
opportunities to think about, talk kins into jack-o-lanterns, then to o-lantern, like the children in the
about, and surround themselves various kinds of foods made from story had done. As they clean out
with words. Researchers (Snow pumpkins. Several children mention the inside of the pumpkin and
1991; Snow et al. 1995; Beck & pumpkin pie. Ms. Longoria shows the begin carving, Ms. Longoria en-
McKeown 2001) stress the value of children a pumpkin and asks them courages them to use the new
learning experiences that empha- how they might go about making pie. vocabulary and concepts they
size decontextualized language—that The children say you have to cut the have encountered. By having the
is, language that gets children to pumpkin and cook it on a stove, then children participate in story-ex-
talk about ideas and use words add some milk and sugar and bake it tension activities, she facilitates
beyond the here and now. Essen- in an oven. A couple of children add the use of decontextualized lan-
tially, we want children to able to that pumpkin seeds are good to eat. guage.
use words in multiple contexts, Ms. Longoria explains that cooked
especially to draw relationships pumpkin is used to make pumpkin

92 Young Children • September 2006

When Ms. Longoria wonders pate in rich language through each other. In the math center,
what the seeds can be used for, formal and informal activities they count, measure, and graph
the children pipe up, “To make a (Morrow 1997). Children’s litera- pumpkins, seeds, acorns, and
jack-o-lantern patch!” They all ture is a rich source for vocabulary leaves. In the reading and writing
want to plant their pumpkin exploration (Snow 1991; Snow et al. center, they listen to story tapes,
seeds. Ms. Longoria asks them to 1995; Beck & McKeown 2001; list fall words on the word wall,
remember when the children in Brabham & Villaume 2002). and dictate stories to Ms.
the book planted their seeds. Longoria.
Some of the children shout, “In
the summertime! We have to wait
Promoting oral language skills
for summer.” The class decides to To promote oral language develop- The role of reading aloud
save some of the seeds to make a ment, Ms. Longoria encourages the to children
summer garden—that way, none of children to sing songs, recite poems,
their pumpkins will “catch cold play with words, and participate in Research touts the benefits of read-
and die.” puppetry and drama as well as class ing aloud to children: “The single
Ms. Longoria suggests baking the discussions. Each week the children most important activity for building
remaining seeds so they can eat them learn at least one new song or poem the knowledge required for eventual
during the reading of the next book, about seasons. They listen to sea- success in reading is reading aloud to
The Pumpkin Patch by Elizabeth King. sonal music (such as Celebrate Sea- children” (Anderson et al. 1985, 23).
This leads to many side discussions sons by Sara Jordan) and to books on Children who are read to obtain sub-
about pumpkins, pumpkin seeds, tape during naptime (like Frog and stantial background experience about
jack-o-lanterns, plants and plant- Toad All Year by Arnold Lobel). many things; have rich and extensive
ing, and Halloween costumes. While the children are participat- vocabularies; understand story struc-
Throughout the children’s study of ing in activities, such as outdoor ture; recognize that reading serves
fall, Ms. Longoria continues to pro- times, lunch, and play, they often many purposes; and find reading
vide meaningful, incidental learning sing songs learned in class. pleasurable (Senechal et al. 1996;
opportunities, often tying in the During outdoor times they Bogott, Letmanski, & Miller 1999;
children’s cultural background. enjoy playing with the word fall. Hargrave & Senechal 2000; Pankey
Through story-extension activities, They say, “Fall is when the leaves 2000; Beck & McKeown 2001).
she encourages the children to use fall down,” laugh hysterically, and However, the amount of reading
new vocabulary and concepts in their fall to the ground like leaves. in and of itself does not boost
daily conversations. Although children at this age are vocabulary and comprehension
literal learners, the class clearly abilities. Vocabulary increases
understands that fall has two when children actively engage in
meanings. Also during outdoor discussions and activities before,
The role of oral language times, the children frequently act during, and after the read-aloud
development out parts of books. For example, (Smallwood 2000). Thus, “the goal
after reading The Apple Pie Tree of invoking background knowl-
Like most skills, speaking does not
by Zoe Hall, they pretend to make edge is to integrate it with text
come simply from listening to conver-
apple pie and use the new vocabu- content in order to assist compre-
sation but from being actively
lary (pick, fill to the brim, peel, and hension” (Beck & McKeown 2001,
immersed in the give-and-take of
cut). 12).
oral language. As Hodges (1984)
During center time, the children
notes, vocabulary development is
have many opportunities to learn
essentially a matter of concept
about fall. For instance, they can Capitalizing on read-alouds
select from myriad art supplies, in- Ms. Longoria’s goal for the
Children who have numerous op-
cluding acorns and leaves, and create children is that they be actively
portunities to engage in language
collages, rubbings, drawings, and involved before, during, and after
activities are likely to develop vast,
paintings related to their study of fall. a read-aloud. Prior to starting the
interconnected vocabularies. Lan-
The children dance, play musical fall theme and reading a selected
guage-rich environments serve as a
instruments, and sing and listen to book, she records each child’s
catalyst for vocabulary development
songs. They produce their own plays response to her question “What is
(Brabham & Villaume 2002), allowing
based on books and songs and con- fall?” The four-year-olds respond:
children to actively hear and partici-
duct impromptu puppet shows for Leaves fall down. Acorns fall.

Young Children • September 2006 93

Squirrels eat acorns. Coconuts fall leaves change from green to red, periodically stops to check for
from a tree. Nests can fall. Pump- orange, or yellow—not mainly comprehension and to briefly
kins fall down. Leaves turn brown. brown like the mesquite trees in discuss the story and the illustra-
Jump in leaves. Eat Halloween South Texas. As they continue their tions, all the while maintaining
candy. They average 2 or 3 ideas walk, another child points to a flock the flow of the story.
each. Ms. Longoria notes that of birds. Ms. Longoria responds, “Yes, After the read-aloud, everyone
several children’s concepts of fall that too is a sign that fall is here! discusses how the nature hike was
seem to entail things that fall Starting in the fall many birds fly similar to and different from the text.
down, and she makes a mental south for the winter months.” Using mesquite leaves they collected
note to herself to discuss with the “Butterflies fly south, too,” says on the hike, the four-year-olds create
children the meanings of the word another child. Since some of the pictures. Ms. Longoria encourages
fall. She then arranges a nature children have family in Mexico, and them to use new vocabulary while
hike to activate prior knowledge many have visited the country, Ms. talking with each other. She then
and to develop background Longoria adds, “Yes, that’s right. The shows them pictures of various other
knowledge. This will allow the monarch butterflies fly across Texas leaves (maple, sassafras, oak, ginkgo,
children to participate in the read- during the fall months and go and and beech). Several children point
aloud to the fullest extent. visit Mexico for the winter.” out that South Texas has oak trees
On the day of the hike she asks Ms. Longoria draws the children’s and acorns too.
the children to look for signs of attention to other aspects of fall: the In the following days, Ms.
fall. One child offers, “Look, the Longoria reads aloud other books
leaves are turning brown.” An- about fall, always connecting
other notices the leaves on the prior knowledge and new vocabu-
ground. Ms. Longoria restates Vocabulary increases lary and checking for comprehen-
and expands on the comments, when children actively sion.
explaining that in other regions At the end of the children’s study of
engage in discussions and fall, she again asks each child, “What
activities before, during, is fall?” The average number of ideas
this time is a little over 7. Ms. Longoria
and after the read-aloud. notes the children’s responses are
longer than the first time and contain
many new words and concepts:
crunching sound of leaves Leaves are different colors. Squirrels
beneath their feet, the put food in their mouth. We wear
coolness of the air, and the sweaters to keep warm. Birds fly south
fact that they have begun to find a warm place. The wind blows.
to wear sweaters to school Colder storms come. Grandpa rakes
in the morning. up the leaves and we jump into them.
At grouptime, Ms.
Longoria and the children
discuss the title of the Conclusion
chosen book (Fall Leaves
Fall! by Zoe Hall), and she The experience of Ms. Longoria and
asks the children what the children in her class illustrates
they think the book might how one teacher can successfully
be about. Many children create an environment that promotes
shout, “The leaves fall the development of rich vocabularies.
down.” She then previews Through theme-based teaching, Ms.
for them the pages of the Longoria provides a scaffold for the
book, stopping briefly to children to learn new vocabulary and
comment on some of the to make connections within and across
pictures and to use vo- content areas. To deepen these con-
cabulary that she wants nections, she plans opportunities for
the children to learn. Ms. the children to relate the new vocabu-

Longoria then reads the lary to their own experiences. She

book to the class. She creates a learning environment in

94 Young Children • September 2006

which the children feel comfort- Bergeron, B.S., S. Wermuth, M. Rhodes, National Reading Panel (NRP). 2000.
& E.A. Rudenga. 1996. Language devel- Report of the National Reading Panel:
able trying out new words in mul- opment and thematic instruction: Sup- Teaching children to read. NIH pub 00-
tiple contexts. Finally, through porting young learners at risk. Child- 4769. Washington, DC: National Institute
read-alouds, Ms. Longoria helps hood Education 72 (3): 141–45. of Child Health and Human Develop-
Bogott, T., J. Letmanski, & B. Miller. 1999. ment.
the children make books their Improving student language and literacy Pankey, J.C. 2000. The benefits of reading
own by encouraging them to re- skills through vocabulary development aloud to preschool children. ERIC Docu-
late the literature to their own and phonemic awareness. Report No. ment ED448866.
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Young Children • September 2006 95