It is always a challenge to find new ways to increase the vocabulary skills of little children. They tend to learn the words needed for their environment by about age three and then slowly add others as they encounter them. But if we are to teach them to read then we need to speed up that process somewhat. It does little good to teach a child to blend sounds and form a word that their brain does not recognize. If they have no meaning or experience for the word then what they are reading doesn’t make any sense to them. As an example, we recently had the word “umpire” on our word list for the letter u. None of my students knew what that was until I produced a photo and explanation for the word. Without the meaning of the word, “I see the umpire.” is as relevant to them as “I see the amoeba.”
And something you have to remember about five-year-old students is that they are as set in their little ways as an old lady! Once they learn something it becomes law: “It is what my daddy/mom/nana told me it is!” So one of the first concepts I teach my students is to think of new ways to label the same thing. I use labeled photos each week to encourage them to see things in different ways. Here is an example from yesterday.
Man (labeled photo of a generic looking man of about thirty)
I asked my students to think of other words we might use for the photo and they came up with these:
Then I suggested they might also use:
Then one of my boys added “Sir” and another suggested “fireman”.
We discussed jobs, but I pointed out that the man’s plain shirt did not indicate any occupation and we might list all the occupations in the world for him.
The next photo was a quarter. Alternate words: coin, money, change.
The last photo was a snowy field. Alternate words: storm, cold, freezing, blizzard.
The words adult, occupation, change, and blizzard were new to some of my students and required explanation and discussion.
The skill I want them to take away from this exercise is the ability to look at a word and a photo or illustration and think about the relationship between the two. Obviously if a page shows a man, but the word they are trying to decipher starts with “b” I don’t want them to guess man. In fact, I don’t want them to “guess” at all! I want them to “look and think”. That’s our reading motto.
We also acquire new words by looking in our dictionary, stopping to discuss new words that show up in stories, labeling things we talk about for each theme or holiday, listing new words for each letter of the alphabet, and comparing ideas from different home environments. Most of my students come from similar backgrounds, but I always remind myself of my own school experience. When I moved here my fellow students were quite amused when I said “forest” instead of “woods”. So we pick up new words from the boy whose family competes in rodeos and others from the girl who loves and watches Dora.
Teaching kindergarten is a far more complex task than it appears to the average person. I think that is why I find it so challenging and rewarding!