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Emergent Literacy: The Importance of Vocabulary

written by: stadams • edited by: Trent Lorcher • updated: 9/11/2012

This is the 4th installment of a four part series. The purpose of this series is to remind teachers that literacy and learning to read needs to be an intentional process. If students are attempting to read for the first time or if they are struggling we need to provide phonological opportunities.

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    Adding Vocabulary

    Here is the scary truth. Emergent literacy is suffering. There are multiple statistical sites on the web that deal with the average person’s working vocabulary. Though, these sites vary in their actual figures, they all agree on one thing: the average working vocabulary is becoming smaller and smaller.

    The average 1st Grader in 1950 used approximately 4000 words. The average 1st grader in 1999 used approximately 1000 words and the gap continues to widen. There are dozens of reasons listed for the decline of as much as 75 percent in the last 58 years, but we will forgo that avenue for the more productive path of, learning why and how to increase a child’s vocabulary and facilitate emergent literacy.

    The main reason for intentionally increasing a child’s vocabulary is that the size of a child’s speaking vocabulary at school entry is highly predictive of success in reading. It becomes glaringly obvious how important vocabulary is when we as adults can sound out a written word in a foreign language to our own, but have no idea what we are saying. If the verbal word is not in the child’s vocabulary, being able to sound it out while reading is pointless. Children must have pre-existing knowledge to build on when acquiring early emergent literacy skills.

    Just as literacy develops from vocabulary, vocabulary itself does not increase by introducing stand-alone words. The best way to grow vocabulary is to build on what children are talking about by adding synonyms and other words related to the topic of conversation.

    Teaching Strategies:

    • Talk with children—a lot!
    • Use words that build on children’s interests
    • Read books that are rich in vocabulary. An interesting side note here: did you know that original versions of classical children’s books have many more words in them than do their modern counterparts? For example, The Little Red Hen (Original Version) has approximately three times the amount of vocabulary than the modern version. The reason for this decreased vocabulary is to try to make the story more predictable and child friendly. Predictability is important, but because of this diminished vocabulary it is vitally important to introduce vocabulary in other ways.
    • Vary experiences to introduce new and unusual words—projects / units / themes (these popular methods of dividing the academic year should be limited in number and strive to be “a mile deep and an inch wide" verses the growing misconception that education should be extremely diverse; which, in effect becomes “an inch deep and a mile wide.") A knowledgable teacher should be able to diversify the curriculum given any topic.
    • Create experiences in which children organize and relate concepts by using vocabulary words in classification