Vocabulary building activities can head off 4th-grade slump

iStock_000025474831XSmallVocabulary instruction and comprehension take the back seat to phonics and fluency in early reading interventions. But, as children move into the “reading to learn” stage, typically between the 3rd and 4th grades, they need an average or above-average vocabulary for reading comprehension, which many do not develop because of the emphasis on phonics and fluency. In a recent issue of Learning Disabilities Practice, a group of Virginia researchers says this vocabulary shortfall may be the reason for the notorious 4th-grade slump may be.

“Vocabulary instruction rarely occurs in the early grades even though many children, especially those from impoverished backgrounds, enter their formal schooling with significant deficits in their vocabulary repertoires,” they write.

Conversation starts vocabulary building

Conversation is the primary way young children’s acquire vocabulary. Over time, however, conversations become less effective for developing new vocabulary, as mostly common words are used in conversation.

In the article, the researchers illustrate techniques for vocabulary instruction with very young children, some of which were used in their recent research study with 224 1st graders. The study found that at-risk students who received both Tier 1 general class instruction and Tier 2 small-group instruction in vocabulary outperformed those at-risk students who received only Tier 1.

To bridge the gap between research and practice, the researchers said they wanted to share their specific techniques for working with young children on increasing their vocabularies.

Many of the activities researchers used in their study centered on shared storybook reading. Shared storybook reading exposes children to rich language and vocabulary that is more sophisticated than everyday conversation.

But the researchers went beyond shared storybook reading by creating activities that allowed children to interact with the words because children learn vocabulary incrementally, progressing through various levels of knowledge, they write.

Below are descriptions of some of recommended activities :

Shared storybook reading activities

Example/non-example activity with pictures

The teacher shows students a series of pictures and asks them to give a “thumbs up” or a “thumbs down” depending on whether the picture is a correct or incorrect representation of a target word. After each picture, the teacher offers reinforcement and describes why the actions in the picture are a good or poor example of the word’s meaning.

Example/nonexample activity with manipulative materials

A similar activity can be carried out using puppets or props instead of pictures. The teacher uses the puppet to demonstrate both examples and nonexamples of the vocabulary terms and asks students to give a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.”

For example, if the target word is “shore”, the teacher can bring the puppet closer and further from the prop being used for shore and ask students if they think the puppet is near the shore or not by the shore. Students can then take turns using the puppets to act out scenes of word meanings.

Making connections with words

By using pictures of target words, the teacher can relate the object or activity to a personal memory. Students can then take turns using the target word to describe their own experiences related to the picture.

For example, if the target is “scamper”, the teacher could hold up a picture that illustrates the word and then say to the students: “This picture reminds me of a puppy in my neighborhood; he scampers in his yard all day.” Students are then asked to provide their own personal examples

Developing sentences with target words is another way young students can use new vocabulary in an everyday context. The teacher reviews the definition of the word and also models it with puppets and props. While modeling, the teacher creates a sentence using the target word. Students then take turns choosing a puppet and developing their own sentences.

Assessment of the depth of vocabulary

Here are activities for assessing word knowledge at the 3 basic levels:

  • expressive level
  • contextual level
  • receptive level

Expressive level
Show students a set of 4 pictures, one of which illustrates a target word while the other 3 act as distracters. Ask students to point to the picture that illustrates a target word such as “blustery.”

Contextual level
Ask students to respond to contextualized questions about target words. For example, if the target word is “slumbering”, ask, “Where is a place that you would be slumbering?”

Receptive level
Have students define each target word and write a sentence with the word.

Interacting with words

“The intent of this article is to provide the means for teachers to translate specific vocabulary research into useful practice for their classrooms in a tiered instructional format,” the researchers write.

“It is our hope that these simple, yet powerful methods for encouraging students to use and interact with new words in multiple ways will provide teachers with the impetus to go beyond traditional methods of vocabulary instruction to help children learn words at a deeper level.”

“Implementing Intensive Vocabulary Instruction for Students At Risk for Reading Disability,” by Paige Pullen et al., Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 2011, Volume 26, Number 3, pp. 145-157.

2 Responses to “Vocabulary building activities can head off 4th-grade slump”

    • Diana

      The lead author (see citation at end of article) is Paige Pullen from Department of Curriculum, Instruction, and Special Education
      at the Curry School of Education, University of Virginia.


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