Growing Vocabularies

As a first grade teacher and mother, I try to immerse my students and children in a language rich environment. I love reading and I love words. The only thing I may love more is watching a child light up with excitement as they discover this love for themselves.

Nearly half of all the students in the Elementary school where I teach qualify for free and reduced lunch. Over the past few years, I have noticed more students in my class with limited vocabularies. I explicitly teach word solving and comprehension strategies to help my students become proficient readers. One of the beginning accuracy strategies I teach is for students to think to themselves “Does it look right?” “Does it sound right?” “Does it make sense?” The authors of “The Daily 5” and “The CAFE Book” coined the term “cross checking.” Those students that have limited vocabularies have difficulty cross checking because they do not have the vocabulary words for many of the words I am trying to teach them to read. The result is frustrating both for me and my students.

I began to wonder what I was missing. “What am I not teaching?” I would ask myself over and over. There were many nights where I went to bed feeling a bit depressed only to wake up feeling more depressed. That was until I met “The Word Lady” at my school. Jill Negrete is the Speech and Langusge Pathologist in my school and she listened politely as I told her my frustrations after one of our back to school in services. It turns out she has noticed the same thing. Children are coming in to school with limited vocabularies. One of the contributing factors is TV. Children are exposed to a lot because of it, but it lacks interaction. The TV doesn’t rival the give and take conversations (teachable moments) between a parent and child.

After talking to Jill, I learned that all is not lost. There is hope. There are things that I can do as a teacher during those empty moments in school (such as waiting in line). To give me a better understanding, Jill has been visiting my class each Monday morning during breakfast to provide language rich opportunities for my students. Eventually I will be applying these strategies in natural ways throughout the day.

Jill has taught me a lot since meeting her one short month ago. It is my privilege to be able to pass some of this knowledge on to you.

Here is where you can begin. Students need to know the parts of a whole. What this means is that they might know what a car is, but they don’t necessarily know the different, smaller parts, that go together to make up the car.

Here is a great example from Jill. The first time my students met her, she came in to the class with a box. Hidden inside the box was a mystery. She gave clues and allowed students to try to guess what it was. It ended up being a piece of corn on the cob complete with the silk and. In the hallway, she had an actual stalk of corn and she ended the lesson by teaching the kids the different parts of it (ex. the tassel, stalk, corn cob, and roots).

The next week, Jill brought a plethora of strange, unusual, and awesome vegetables from her garden. She told about each one and talked about how the new vegetables were similar to ones that they already knew. She included little tricks to help them remember some of the weird names like artichoke and okra.

When she left my room, my table was overflowing with the bountiful harvest. She placed 2 butter knives on the table. “Cut them open” she said. “Let the kids not only see them, but let them feel them and smell them as well.” It has been a great week as my class has been following her directions. We ended up having our reading groups on the floor so as not to disturb the wonderful gifts she gave us.

I am indebted to Miss Jill in many ways. She not only has begun to unlock the mystery for me as to how I can help my students with language issues, but she has planted a seed, a love of words, in the hearts of my students. A seed that is growing right before my eyes and putting a smile on my face.

Thank you Jill!

*Watch the video below to see the word lady in action!


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