Teaching Strategies for Vocabulary Instruction

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Young children have the ability to learn effective language skills and acquire vocabulary while participating in JBR activities. Interactions between adults and children play a crucial role in vocabulary acquisition and the development of emergent literacy. Shared reading experiences have positive effects on children's developing language skills, and are a great predictor for reading success. Several studies of vocabulary acquisition have investigated teaching strategies for vocabulary instruction and their impact on word learning during JBR activities.

While communicating and participating in shared reading experiences, attention is repeatedly guided to nonverbal information regarding new vocabulary (McNeil, 1992; Tomasello & Akhtar, 1995). Non-verbal cues help children gain significant knowledge regarding vocabulary and their meanings. Use of nonverbal cues when introducing novel words to children like pointing to illustrations, manipulation of objects and gestures, etc. creates a scaffolding effect. Scaffolding automatically directs attention to the object being manipulated or pointed to and leads children to believe this is the object which is being referred to and apply meaning and a new label (Tomasello & Akhtar, 1995). Children who are exposed to rich vocabularies learn words and gain knowledge and understanding from their environment while actively participating in a variety of explicit learning activities. Basic concepts from the world around us and our environment are learned while reading and listening to books, interacting with peers, casual conversation, television and movies, etc. (Biemiller, & Slonin, 2001; Robbins & Ehri, 1994).

Initiation of word knowledge can also be acquired through direct teaching and explicit instruction of vocabulary words. Vocabulary acquisition and word knowledge is significantly impacted when detailed information is provided. Children acquire word meaning when exposed to explicit semantic information such as direct explanations of word meanings, definitions, and context of use (Bielmiller & Boote, 2006; Dockrell and Messer, 2004). When adults pause during JBR to provide a short explanation and describe illustrations continuity is interrupted, however comprehension and vocabulary acquisition skills continue to show improvement (Brabham & Lynch-Brown, 2002; Penno et al., 2002). Elley (1989) and Penno, et al., (2002) examined the use of explanations and word meanings used by parents and teachers while reading to young children. Children who were given additional input such as labeling of illustrations paired with pointing, short descriptions (i.e., synonyms), word elaboration and/or teacher explanations of target words were more likely to improve vocabulary knowledge than those who simply listened to a story without explanations and additional input.

Few studies have been conducted to demonstrate word learning strategies and the effects of synonyms on vocabulary acquisition. Pemberton and Watkins (1987) investigated vocabulary acquisition through recasting of synonyms during JBR with 3 year olds. Recasts use a target word in a phrase or sentence followed by a similar sentence with rewording and/or additional information provided without changing the meaning. Participants were read stories containing synonyms, which were assumed to be part of existing repertoire. Target vocabulary was presented within a sentence followed by a second sentence containing a synonym for the target word. Children were expected to associate the synonym (new label) with the familiar word, indicating synonyms contribute to the ability to compare meanings of known words to unknown words (Baker & Nelson, 1984). Results indicated children learned to accept a second label (synonym) for a word already known rejecting ME principle (Pemberton & Watkins, 1987). Au and Glusman (1990) found children have shown the ability to resist ME and learn multiple labels for referents if believed to be at different hierarchical levels. Littschwager & Markman (1994) argue, ME does not prohibit children from learning more than one label as a rule, but rather a bias in which children have the foresight to disregard ME and learn new vocabulary words.

Ewers and Brownson (1999) and Sénéchal and Cornell (1993) investigated word learning strategies comparing the use of what and where questions to recasting synonyms within the body of a story (i.e., he has a fedora recasted he has a hat). Sénéchal & Cornell (1993) found children accepted a second label, however no significant vocabulary gains were made when comparing to questioning strategies. Both strategies were equally effective. Ewers and Brownson (1999) found while children were able to learn new words through recasting, using questions had a larger impact and produced better results with more learned words. Asking questions, using extensions and requesting clarification during JBR can be strategically used to encourage participation in ongoing communication and turn-taking producing a significant increase in children's vocabulary knowledge and comprehension (Cornell, et al., 1988; Drabble, 2006; Ewers & Brownson, 1999).

JBR strategies, particularly the use of questioning and commenting provides a vehicle in which adults can manipulate the environment to influence language skills and enhance vocabulary knowledge (Ard & Beverly, 2004; Morrow, 1984; Reese & Cox, 1999; Senechal, Cornell & Broda, 1988; Scarborough & Dobrich, 1994). A vehicle allowing adults to create a natural environment inspiring conversational turn-taking behaviors, joint attention, and elicit responses to encouraging elaboration of story details (Ezell & Justice, 1998). As children are allowed to be active participants (use of questions, commenting, pointing labeling, etc), exchange ideas and be creative with curiosity during presentation of the story language and vocabulary naturally develops (Sénéchal, Thomas and Monker, 1995). Commenting and elaboration give children the opportunity to modify their thoughts and ideas and make them unique to their interpretation. When asking and answering questions, children are typically expected to give a specific response. Specific information may not be required to respond to comments and elaboration as it is with questioning (Ard, 2004).

Questions and commenting allow for discussions between adult and child fostering language learning and a better understanding of the story (Snow 1983). Children call upon prior knowledge and personal experiences to connect information and context from the story to acquire new vocabulary (Newkirk & McLure, 1992). Gains in vocabulary development is noticeable in children who actively participate in question and answering exchanges (Brabham & Lynch-Brown, 2002). The use of questioning and commenting is a strategy adults naturally use to provide children a way to gain additional information about a story and encourages further discussion for vocabulary development. During these discussions children are given the opportunity to expose themselves to target vocabulary multiple times through the back and forth exchange of questions and answers (Cornell, et al., 1998). Repeated exposure allows representation of many new words to evolve simultaneously (Ard, 2004).

When children are exposed to new vocabulary multiple times, studies have shown children are successful in gaining receptive vocabulary knowledge (Elley, 1989; Robbins & Ehri; Sénéchal & Cornell, 1993). Supporting these finding, research by Justice et al. (2003) and Sénéchal (1997) found children were able to acquire improved receptive and expressive vocabulary skills when repeated exposures to target words was used. When presented with multiple exposures to unfamiliar words, children have the ability to reorganize and "map" information already known and gather new information to determine word meanings for vocabulary acquisition (Crais, 1992). Repeated exposure and the frequency with which adults produce new words reinforces vocabulary and increases comprehension and language development (McGee, & Schickedanz, 2007). There is no absolute number of exposures or ideal condition necessary for word learning, however studies have established word learning is possible with as few as one to four exposures (Elley, 1989; Ewers and Brownson, 1999; Sénéchal, 1997; Sénéchal & Cornell, 1993) to new words.

Many teaching strategies for vocabulary instruction have been investigated and used regularly as tools for vocabulary acquisition. At this time no single method is considered superior (Simmons & Kameenui, 1990), however show significant evidence to support language and vocabulary learning. For vocabulary acquisition to be successful, teaching strategies must be tailored to meet the needs of the individual. Children must be active participants in a learning rich environment, with repeated and multiple exposures participating in both direct and indirect instruction of new vocabulary (National Reading Panel, 2000).

Teaching strategies for word learning encourages critical thinking skills to increase language and vocabulary knowledge and enriches development of the functional skills necessary for vocabulary acquisition (Mezynski, 1983; Stahl & Fairbanks, 1986). Research has shown that young children who enter school with language delays are at a higher risk for developing later reading and academic difficulties (Catts, 1993; Scarborough & Dobrich, 1994). While current research supports the use of JBR as an intervention strategy for young children with delays in language (Ratner, Parkner & Gartner, 1993), there is a need for further research regarding those children who do not have a language delay but are considered at risk for developing later academic difficulty.