Should we be teaching vocabulary in preschool? Indubitably! Here’s why – and how.
Recently, my adult son got an e-reader. He was very excited about a feature it had – when you came across a word you didn’t know, you could just touch the word and – presto! The definition would appear.
Wow, was my first thought. I wish I had that when I was a kid! Then I realized that in a way, I was like that feature for my preschool students. No, they don’t (usually) stop me while I’m reading them a story to ask what a word means. Yet I help them learn new vocabulary every day.
Hold on, I hear you saying. Don’t preschoolers have enough on their plate with learning the ABC’s, counting to ten, social skills, and all that? Why do they need to learn vocabulary?
To better understand Dickens and the New York Times? Uh, no.
To get an edge on the competition and start preparing for the SAT’s? Oh, please, no.
To experience more of the richness and scope of the language? You’re getting close.
To be able to more fully express their thoughts and feelings? Yes!
To get excited about learning new things, finding things out, and looking things up? Precisely!
As a matter of fact, beginning to teach vocabulary in preschool is probably more effective than those boring (even for me, and I’ve always loved words) vocabulary lists in middle school. Do you really remember any of those flash-card words today? We remember – and use – words we’ve read and heard in context. And it starts as soon as we start hearing words.
It’s always seemed strange to me that many well-known nursery rhymes contain words most preschoolers – and most adults, for that matter – are unlikely to know. For instance, “Little Miss Muffet.” Does any young child know what a “tuffet” is? Yet we never explain it – we just go on with the rhyme. And if a child does ask, we’re likely to say, “Oh, it’s something you sit on, like a cushion, I guess.”
When we do this, we’re modeling the exact opposite behavior of what we want. We’re teaching children that if they don’t know a word, they should guess what it means, or simply ignore it, instead of taking the opportunity to learn something. I tell my students, “I didn’t know what a ‘tuffet’ is either, so I looked it up on my computer. It means a low seat or stool.” Now they know!
Don’t wait for young children to ask about words they don’t know – it rarely happens. Instead, anticipate words they might not be familiar with and be prepared to talk about them. One of my favorite children’s books is called The Hubbub Above, by Arthur Howard. (It’s about a little girl whose upstairs neighbors turn out to be elephants!) I love the word “hubbub” and define it for the class (“it’s a loud, noisy situation”) before I start reading. “Do you ever have a hubbub in here?” I ask them. Oddly enough, the answer is always a resounding yes!
If a new word appears in the text of a story, briefly define it before you continue reading. “It was a lovely soiree – (that’s a fancy party) – and everyone was dressed in their nicest clothes.” “Suddenly an orangutan – that’s an animal like a big ape – came stomping through the forest.”
As with stories and rhymes, be prepared to define unfamiliar words. If possible, teach with a picture or a concrete example. For instance, when singing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” many teachers show children how to make a diamond shape with their fingers. But in the context of the song, the word doesn’t refer to the shape, but to the sparkly jewel. Bring in a picture of diamond jewelry, or if one of the teachers has a diamond ring, ask her to show it to the class. Then they’ll understand why the song says that stars twinkle like diamonds.
I’m always telling the children I teach about seeing or hearing a new word and being curious about it. “It sounded funny,” I might say, or “I didn’t know what they were talking about!” Then I’ll tell them how I looked it up and found out what it meant. I’m a music teacher, but as a classroom teacher, you can show children how you look up definitions online, or even have a children’s dictionary in the room. They might not be able to read, but they’ll get the idea that it’s fun to look up information and learn new things.
And remember, when you’ve taught a new word, be sure to use it in conversation once in a while, as a reminder. I might say, “Lindsay, could you say that again? I couldn’t hear you because of the hubbub in here!” That way, the word really sinks in.
Learning new vocabulary should be exciting and enjoyable. A new word is a toy, a tool, and an instant self-esteem boost. Adding new words to your preschoolers’ vocabulary is a great way to share the sheer joy of learning. So get off your tuffet and start today!
This article originally appeared in “Teachers Net Gazette” in 2013.