Engaging children in vocabulary learning is about being authentic in your approach, says experienced teacher Giselle Pulford.
Vocabulary is crucial in helping students share their thoughts and feelings, while also boosting comprehension and academic success.
Giselle joined Phil and Sharon Callen on episode six of The Teacher’s Toolkit for Literacy to discuss her different units and strategies for teaching vocabulary.
Giselle is a Year 6/7 Teacher at Nairne Primary School in the Adelaide Hills who uses transformative, authentic and fun teaching methods when helping students to embrace their vocabulary.
“I think in my early life as a teacher, as I was learning to grasp what I needed to cover in literacy, I think I had some very dry spelling work and some very dry things to do with how you embrace ways … I had to make that move to more engaging resources, and then finding texts and reading them out loud and going, ‘this is why I love this book’,” she said.
“I needed to bring that authenticity of what I loved about it into my teaching. So, although it didn’t look like the standard spelling contract or the dictionary meanings we’re going to do about words this week, the authenticity of saying, ‘this is why words are awesome and look at this book and how they use them’ has made all the difference. That’s real.”
When discussing her approaches, Giselle explained the effectiveness of reading aloud by highlighting interesting words.
“I really value reading aloud in the class. I read quite a range of texts and quite regularly across the day … so when I started talking about vocabulary very specifically, I pause more often in some of my read alouds to go, ‘oh I think that was a good word’,” Giselle said.
“Then I became a bit more strategic when choosing a book … What I might point out in that book about vocabulary and getting that kind of noticed … it’s as simple as asking them ‘what do you think that word means? Why was it used here? What word would we normally put there?’ And get them to volunteer a more simple synonym that we would expect most people to use that this author crafted with a much stronger, more powerful word.”
Giselle also recommended asking students to write particular words on the board during their independent reading time.
“Some days there’ll be a different focus, and one of our particular focuses is that I say to them, ‘today I want you to be noticing the words. So, whatever it is that you’re reading, find me good words, interesting words’. And I clarify that, that it doesn’t have to be difficult, brand new or foreign. It’s just the word that stands out in that particular piece of text that you’re reading today,” she said.
“That’s been amazing. I think students tend to really love writing on the board, but they love running up and grabbing the pen … and at the end of that, I transferred that onto a large piece of paper. And then after the end of the term, we put that into a big book of our collected words that have happened really from their reading.”
Sharon added: “Every child is really being exposed to, through their own reading, through read alouds and through discussions about words, the real purpose of words and that there’s meaning attached to them. It gives better entry points into thinking and talking about texts and what words mean … every child, every day is building strong linguistic store houses of vocabulary because of the texts you intentionally choose to use with your students and the awareness that you raise around them.”
But Giselle revealed there is certainly more than one way to engage in these exercises. Another unit she uses involves all students being instructed to become ‘word collectors’ – a task inspired by ‘The Word Collector’ by Peter Reynolds.
“We literally hide words around the room on little bits of paper. So, the first one is always interesting words that come out of [The Word Collector] picture book and we hide them under the tables and behind the shelves and all over the place. The students are hunting for them, and then we talk about what the words are and what they meant,” she said.
“Then, they make a little mini book, and they write them in their little mini book, like a collection of words for themselves. And then each week we do it again … we’ll pick words from poetry. We will read usually a picture book … and some other times we’ll pick a particular collection of words.
“We had a couple of different themes … we’ve had articles of clothing, and we were getting students who call every top a jumper, so we needed to say, ‘what is a jumper?’ And a wind-cheater, and a pullover, and a sweater, and give them that range of language. So, we weren’t always hearing top and pants.”
Finally, Giselle encouraged teachers to utilise a ‘Word of the Day’ strategy in order to better develop and improve the vocabulary understanding of students.
“We’ve done a really specific focus on Word of the Day, and that’s gone into more development of the etymology to really get students understanding where words come from,” she said.
“It particularly [helps] that replacement of the low-level tier, one kind of word you might’ve used to put in your writing, so there’s a better example. And that has made a significant shift in what I’m seeing in their writing samples now.”
Phil added: “You knowing the needs of the children, conferring (or roving conferences) with them more, talking with them or observing them, You’ve got an understanding of where those children are and what they need. So, that’s why you’re adjusting that Word of the Day, and all your vocabulary work, to what they need.”