Making word learning meaningful: New book on vocabulary instruction

November 4, 2020

Reading and writing is an important part of early childhood development.

But when thinking of how children learn and use words, how much do we consider their actual comprehension of language? And how much consideration is given to vocabulary development in the classroom?

Associate Professor Tanya Wright tackles these questions and more in her book, “A Teacher’s Guide to Vocabulary Development Across the Day: The Classroom Essentials Series.” The book combines research and knowledge to provide a practical guide to help teachers make word learning more meaningful and engaging across the day.

Tanya S. Wright

Wright’s book, released this month, is the next installation in the Classroom Essentials series from Heinemann, a publisher that focuses on professional resources and providing educational services for teachers. According to Heinemann’s website, each book in the series focuses on one essential student-centered practice, providing teachers with the information to apply it in their classrooms.

In a recent podcast with Katie Wood Ray, author and editor for Heinemann’s Classroom Essentials books, Wright shares that she has always loved words and writing. But it was when she began studying more about literacy and reading development that she learned how important words are for helping kids to read, write and communicate.

“It just became really clear to me that this is such an important area to focus on—to support kids’ literacy development,” she shares with Ray. “I think once we do pay attention to it, there are lots of opportunities to build vocabulary across the day, as part of the work and the learning that we’re already doing with kids.”

Wright is an associate professor of Language and Literacy in the Department of Teacher Education at Michigan State University and a former kindergarten teacher. Her research and teaching focuses on curriculum and instruction in language and literacy during the early childhood and elementary years. She examines instructional practices that promote oral language, vocabulary and knowledge development for young children.

From ‘teachable’ to intentional

In an effort to understand more about vocabulary instruction in the classroom, Wright and her colleague Susan Neuman conducted several studies of curriculum and instruction, including more than 600 hours of observation in 55 kindergarten classrooms as well as studying the most commonly used English language arts (ELA) core curriculum materials.

They found teachers often had no planned vocabulary instruction. Instead, instructors typically relied on “teachable moments,” explaining word meanings to children only as opportunities arose, when it appeared the child did not understand. Additionally, they found these teachable moments were inequitably distributed from classroom to classroom. 

“If we want to make a difference, we have to be intentional and make plans to support children to learn word meanings across all parts of the school day,” she writes in chapter two.

Being intentional is exactly what “A Teacher’s Guide to Vocabulary Development Across the Day” is about. Through examples of practical application, Wright shows teachers how to create opportunities for children to think about and use words in meaningful contexts, specifically throughout the school day.

The book supports teachers in planning for children’s vocabulary learning in meaningful ways during read-alouds, during content area learning (e.g., science and social studies), as well as during reading and writing instruction.

Wright hopes it helps teachers see the importance of reframing vocabulary in elementary classrooms as well as get excited about the opportunities to teach kids new words.

“In order to create opportunities for young children to learn new words, we need to build their knowledge of the world and make sure that they are learning new things,” she writes.

Additionally, readers have access to online resources. A series of seven videos show teachers supporting students’ vocabulary development across the day bringing to life the many principles of this Classroom Essentials book.

Wright has also published a blog that offers suggestions on supporting vocabulary development across the day during remote learning as many children are currently engaged in online instruction due to COVID-19.

“A Teacher’s Guide to Vocabulary Development Across the Day: The Classroom Essentials Series” is available for purchase from Heinemann as well as Amazon.

Written by Ilene Davis