Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Developing Word Consciousness in Children

Kids need to learn about 40,000-50,000 words by the time they graduate high school. Traditional approaches to vocabulary instruction (listing, looking up, defining, writing in a sentence) have proven to be unsuccessful, but even if this instruction were perfectly successful children would fall far short of the number of words they needed to know by the end of their K-12 schooling. It is readily apparent that children must learn most of their words incidentally, in conversation with their teachers, parents and peers and through reading and being read to.

While this learning may be incidental, it does not mean that it cannot be fostered in the classroom. What children need to develop is a word consciousness, an awareness of and curiosity about words that will motivate the learning of new words. Teachers have a huge role to play in developing this consciousness.

Many years ago I wrote a group of poems to help students develop reading fluency and awareness of word families and spelling. One thing I did with these poems was use some sophisticated vocabulary, some words that would not be found in a first or second graders’ vocabulary. I viewed it as an opportunity to stretch kids’ vocabulary in a meaningful context. Here is an example:

            Crocodile Isle
            On a trip to a tropic isle,
            I encountered a crocodile,
            With jagged teeth, a crooked smile.
            We sat down to talk awhile.

            He proved to be quite versatile,
            And told me stories with great style
            Of pleasant trips along the Nile
            When he was just a juvenile.

            So if you should meet a crocodile
            Remember they’re not mean or vile.
            Have a nice chat, but all the while
            Keep your distance – about a mile.
                               (from Snack Attack and Other Poems)

Obviously, the target pattern is –ile words (and one sound alike, isle), but I want to call attention to words like versatile, juvenile and vile. These words would be challenging for most six and seven-year olds, but I included them, not just because they fit the pattern, but also because they provided an opportunity to talk about the words with the children in a real context and stretch their vocabulary.

Since the poem was first presented to the students as a read aloud followed by discussion of the meaning, I had plenty of opportunity to scaffold their understanding of these new words. Further, though these were new words, they were words for which students already had a concept, so I could hook these words onto a familiar concept. For example, the students already had a concept of “child” and “young”, so I could talk about the word “juvenile” and help them add this word to their growing concept of “youth.”

In this way, and in many other ways, teachers can help students develop a curiosity about words and an awareness of how words work and how they are interrelated. This curiosity and awareness has been called word consciousness.

In a very helpful article in The Reading Teacher, entitled “For the Love of Words: Fostering Word Consciousness in Young Readers” (Volume 62, Issue 3, 2011), Graves and Watts-Taffe offer a framework for developing word consciousness in the classroom. The framework has six categories as follows:
1.    Create a rich word environment – What are the words that students see in the classroom environment (word walls, anchor charts, etc.), read in a variety of texts in the classroom library, hear spoken by the teacher and other students, and ultimately use in their own speaking and writing?
2.    Recognize and promote adept diction – Diction, in this case is precision in the choice of words. Graves and Watts-Taffe recommend that one way to develop adept diction is through repeated read alouds and direct discussion of words encountered in the read aloud and how they can be used by students. I wrote about the read aloud/vocabulary connection in this post.
3.    Promote Word Play – Stock the room with commercially available word games as well as games that teachers can make and use in word based literacy centers.
4.    Foster Word Consciousness in Writing – Discussion around the best word choices makes for powerful writing instruction and helps to develop word consciousness. For example, a mini-lesson on powerful verbs can show students how the right word choice can bring power and clarity to their writing. “The car sped down the road” is more descriptive and clearer than “The car went down the road.”
5.    Involve students in word investigations – Students might be interested in investigating the special vocabulary used by certain professions, or the derivation of slang expressions or new words that have entered our language in the last decade.
6.    Teach Students About Words – Teachers should take every opportunity to model their own word consciousness by directly teaching kids about words. When students encounter the word “sign” in their reading, I might ask them why the “g” in “sign” is silent. This gives me an opportunity to talk about how “sign” is related to “signal” and that we keep the “g” in “sign” even though we don’t pronounce it, to make sure that the reader understands the meaning. This can then lead to a discussion of all sorts of words – signature, assignment, signage, assignation, signatory, signet, significance, signify, sign language.

Graves and Watts-Taffe recommend that when discussing words with children the teacher should

1.    Explain the meaning of the new word (or have another student explain it).
2.    Extend the meaning of the word by providing examples.
3.    Engage students with the word by helping them to make connections with their own experiences.

Another very useful article on the topic, also from The Reading Teacher is “The Vocabulary-Rich Classroom: Modeling Sophisticated Word Use to Promote Word Consciousness and Vocabulary Growth” by Lane and Allen (Volume 63, Issue 5, 2011). The authors offer a model of how to expand student word consciousness through the various activities of the Morning Meeting. The authors say “[p]romoting incidental learning and word consciousness through frequent and deliberate modeling of sophisticated vocabulary can add substantial breadth to students’ vocabularies.”


Words are endlessly fascinating things. Martin Luther King used his special way with words as the platform for a movement that changed the world (I have a dream). So did Abraham Lincoln (of the people, for the people, by the people) and Franklin Roosevelt (nothing to fear, but fear itself) and John F. Kennedy (ask not what your country can do for you). As teachers we need to foster our own love and fascination with words and we must share that love with our students and thoughtfully and systematically nurture their own word consciousness. In this way we set the stage for the development of the rich vocabulary that is so necessary for our students’ academic, social and professional success.