Category Archives: vocabulary

Important academic words for K-2 students to learn

Discouraged child thinks there are too many words in a book she is readingLittle children need to learn so many words, but 15 are especially important for answering questions in school and on tests.  For example, if students think “compare” means to show how two things are different, they will answer a test question incorrectly.  Knowing the meaning of direction words is vital.

 

According to Marilee Sprenger*, who analyzed the Common Core standards and other sources to develop this list, the words for kindergarteners, first graders and second graders are

  • Compare
  • Contrast
  • Describe
  • Distinguish
  • Identify
  • Retell
  • Demonstrate
  • Determine
  • Draw
  • Explain
  • Locate
  • Suggest
  • Support
  • Comprehend, and
  • Develop

These words are not everyday words for little children.  Children need to learn these words’ meanings from teachers and parents.  How?

First the adult says the word properly and explains what it means, using it in the context of something the children already know.  Next the children repeat the explanation, paraphrasing the adult’s explanation and using an example of their own.  Children then might draw a picture of the word’s meaning to show that they understand.  The adult should use the word many times and encourage students to write down the word and its meaning.  The adult should continue to use the word in situations where students must act to show if they understand the word.  Finally, occasional word games, like vocabulary bees and word BINGO games, reinforce the word and its meaning.**

Sometimes we suppose students know words because they have heard them over and over.  But that does not mean they know them.  I worked with a seventh grader who thought “compare” means “contrast.”  It’s important for us to take the time to teach these words so when children encounter them as directions for homework, quizzes or tests, they can perform correctly.

*Teaching the Critical Vocabulary of the Common Core; 55 words that make or break student understanding,  by Sprenger, 2013

**Building Academic Vocabulary:  Teacher’s Manual by Marzano and Pickering, 2005

What’s the right age to read Harry Potter?

Harry Potter turns 31 tomorrow, July 31, a good time to ask if there is a right age for children to read the Harry Potter books.


When the books were first published, Harry was 11, and The Sorcerer’s Stone was more fantasy and magic—owls who delivered mail, a sorting hat, photos who talked—than menacing evil.  No need for concern.  But later books focused on evil and Harry’s fight to conquer it.  Much tougher reading.

The first book came out in 1997; the second in 1998; the third in 1999; the fourth in 2000; the fifth in 2003; the sixth in 2005; and the seventh in 2007.  Kids who read the first book when they were eight couldn’t read the fifth book until they were 18 and, presumably, mature enough to handle its content.

But today, voracious eight year olds can devour the series in a month or two.  Should they?

Here are some suggestions to consider if you have a child coming of age to read Harry Potter.

Book one:  Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone  Lexile 880 (grades 5-6 reading level)

Harry turns 11.  Kids usually like to read about child characters who are slightly older than they are, so readers 8,  9, 10, and 11 years old (usually, third, fourth and fifth graders) might enjoy the first book.

However, a child’s reading level needs to be considered.  Some third graders are just starting chapter books while others have been reading chapter books since kindergarten.  Lagging readers might miss out on much of the meaning in Harry Potter books because of a lack of vocabulary or difficulty with inferences.  For them it might be better to wait.

Precocious readers, on the other hand, might be able to handle the first Harry Potter book with ease.  Two scary parts (a troll fight and a final fight between Harry and Voldemort) are a little scary, but not scarier than what children have been exposed to in the evening news or in video games.  They will miss some of the cultural differences between British writing and American writing (such as a cupboard in London being a closet in the US) but they will still understand what is important.

A child’s emotional resilience needs to be evaluated too.  If children suffer nightmares from TV shows or scary picture books, Harry Potter novels might not be a good choice until the children are older.  Or you could tell them when they start the first book that by the end of the last book Voldemort is dead and Harry is alive.  But that takes some of the suspense from the reading.

Book two:  Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets  Lexile 940 (grades 5-6 reading level)

If a child can read book one, that child is ready for book two.  It has another fight scene at the end, but in other ways The Chamber of Secrets is a fanciful children’s story like book one.

Book three:   Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban  Lexile 880 (grades 5-6 reading level)

Ditto for books one and two except that the concept of a serial killer is introduced.  This concept foreshadows events in a later book.

Book four:  Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire  Lexile 880 (grades 5-6 reading level)

Two minor characters die in this book right in front of the reader’s eyes.  Also, children learn that some people cannot be trusted when one such person tries to lure Harry away.  The tone of this book is darker than the previous three, and for that reason precocious first and second graders probably shouldn’t read it, and sensitive third and fourth graders might not be emotionally ready. As a parent, you should be prepared to discuss the themes of death and trustworthiness with your children before you let them read book four.  I recommend waiting until fifth grade or middle school for this book.

Book five:   Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix  Lexile 950 (grades 5-7 reading level)

Someone Harry loves dies in this book.  Its tone is about the same as book four, that is, darker than in the first three books.  Harry is 15, indicating that readers should probably be almost that age too.  Postpone this book until middle grades for most children.

Book six:   Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince Lexile 1030 (grades 6-8 reading level)

Book six is too tough for elementary school children and even for some middle grades children.  Harry, 16, must take on enormous responsibilities and he has no one to protect him.  No place is safe.  Another scary idea is that people exist who murder for the heck of it—not for a rational reason but just because. At the end of the book a pivotal character dies a terrible death at the hands of another pivotal character. Harry vows to avenge his friend’s death.

Book seven:   Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2  Lexile 980 (grades 6-7 reading level)

More deaths occur, but none so chilling as at the end of book six.  A reader who can stomach book six can stomach book seven.  Read during late middle grades or high school.

How to help children figure out new vocabulary words when they read

Children need strategies to learn new vocabulary words when they encounter such words in their reading.  Here are several strategies:

Definitions: Sometimes, definitions are given immediately after a new word.  Definitions can be separated from the word with a comma (An avalanche, a quick moving mass of snow,), with a dash (An avalanche—a quick-moving mass of snow—), with the words “that is” (An avalanche, that is a quick-moving mass of snow) or with the Latin abbreviation for that is, i.e. (An avalanche, i.e. a quick-moving mass of snow,).

Comparisons: Sometimes a word is compared to another word or idea which is similar.  “A zebra is similar to a wild horse but with different markings.”

Contrasts: Sometimes a word is contrasted with another word or idea which is different from the new word.  “A mug differs from a tea cup because the mug is taller and contains more liquid.”

Context clues: Sometimes a new word can be learned from other words in the same sentence or nearby sentences.  “The car crash caused one fatality.  A woman not wearing her seat belt died.”

Examples:  Sometimes a word is explained by the example which follows it.  “Academic vocabulary is the kind tested on the SAT and ACT.  Some examples include obstacle, complement and mollify.”

Similarity to a known word: Sometimes a word will sound like or remind a student of another word.  “The child clasped her mother’s hand.”  Clasped sounds like “grasped.”

How to recognize these clues to the meaning of new words needs to be taught to children, and they need practice using each clue.  Knowing the clues will improve children’s reading comprehension, since comprehension depends so much on understanding vocabulary.

Vocabulary comes in three tiers

Educated people use a three-tiered vocabulary, according to research* done thirty years ago.

  • Tier 1 words include basic words, the working vocabulary The X factor in type facesof little children. Children do not need to be taught these words; they learn them from interacting with their caretakers and other children.  In kindergarten, some of these words are called sight words.  Usually these words do not have multiple meanings.  Such words include “no,” “dad” and “dog.”

  • Tier 2 words include words we use frequently as adults but which little children do not use. These “adult” words can be used in many contexts.  They are harder for children to learn since they have multiple meanings.  Tier 2 words add detail to our speech and writing and are necessary to learn in order to understand what we read.  ”Obvious,” “complex” and “verify” are examples.
  • Tier 3 words are used infrequently, but are necessary to speak and to read about particular areas of study. In an English class, such words might include “predicate,” “narrator” and “sonnet.”  In a medical journal such words or phrases might include “prefrontal cortex,” “neuroplasticity” and “synapses.”  These are often “idea” words used as scaffolding to build further knowledge.

The Common Core State Standards are asking teachers to teach and use Tier 3 words more.  Instead of saying the “action word,” teachers say the “verb.”  Instead of asking for the “total,” teachers ask for the “sum.”

What this means is that students, beginning in primary grades, are being taught Tier 3 vocabulary words.  Children are expected to know what “analyze” and “cite” mean, and they are expected to use those words, not euphemisms, in explaining their thinking or behavior.  And when words like those appear on state-wide, end-of-year exams, children are expected to know what they mean and know how to respond accordingly.

You, as parents, can reinforce Tier 3 vocabulary by using appropriate academic vocabulary with your children.  Harry Potter is the protagonist of his stories.  Three and two are factors of six.  Anne Frank’s diary is a primary source.  Arthropods have an exoskeleton.

Children need to master certain Tier 3 words in order to understand directions from teachers and directions on tests.  We will talk more about these words in future blogs.

*Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L.  (2002).  Bringing words to life.  New York:  Guilford.

How to make reading anything easier

boy reading on the floorBefore you read:

  • Read the title and look at the photos, drawings, charts, and maps. Try to figure out what they mean without reading  the text.
  • Read the subheadings. Ask yourself, “What is this about?”  Try to predict the topic you will be reading about.
  • Read vocabulary words out loud, find out how to pronounce them (ask an adult) and ask or look up what they mean.  If there are vocabulary words in the margins, or if words are highlighted in the text, they are there because they are important and because you might not know them.

girl with ipad in bed

While you read:

  • Figure out the main idea. Usually in nonfiction it is named at the end of the first paragraph.  If you own the book, underline the main idea.  If not, start a mind web with the main idea in the middle.
  • Figure out what details are important. Add those to your mind web.  It’s easier to study a mind web than it is to study a whole lot of paragraphs.
  • Highlight or write down every word you don’t understand.
    • Look for clues in the nearby words.
    • Ask an adult to help you.
    • Or look up the words in a dictionaryWrite down what they mean, and read over the words and meanings until you know them.
  • If something is difficult or confusing, ask an adult to explain it.
  • Define important words on your mind web.
  • Summarize each paragraph into one or two sentences to be sure you understand it.  If you can write down what it means, you understand.

How to make vocabulary stick

academicvocabIf you teach students vocabulary, check out 101 Strategies to Make Academic Vocabulary Stick by Marilee Sprenger.

Let me identify a few of the strategies:

  • Create a chart marked noun, verb, adjective and adverb. Make sure students know what those parts of speech are.  When you teach a new word, ask the students to write the word in the appropriate column.  Then talk about different forms of the word.  “Predict,” for example is a verb.  But “prediction?”  A noun.  “Predictable?”  An adjective.  “Predictably?” An adverb.
  • You, the teacher, “wear” the new word on your person. Write the word on masking tape and tape it to yourself.  Let students observe you walking around wearing the new word.  Let them think about that word.  Later, let students offer their thoughts about the word before you define it for them.
  • Teach students how to annotate their books or articles in order to learn new vocabulary words. For example, teach students to circle words they don’t know.  Write the meaning in the margin.  Now draw a line connecting the new word with the margin meaning.  Or draw connecting lines between a new word and its synonym or antonym.
  • Act out a word, and let students guess what the word might be. This is a good way to reinforce synonyms too.
  • To teach prefixes and suffixes, create a graphic organizer with the affix in the center. Around it write four words using this affix.  From each word, like spokes of a wheel, write the definition of the word.  Still farther out on the spokes, write a sentence using the words properly.
  • To categorize shades of meaning, draw five squares next to each other, forming a “train.” Study five words (on the board or on sticky notes for each student or group).  Using the squares, line up the five words in some kind of order (strongest to weakest, most informal to most formal, or most general to most specific, for example).
  • Use online dictionaries, but not just any online dictionaries. Lingro.com can offer students a definition every time they click on an online word they don’t know.  Blachan.com/shali defines a word, tells its part of speech, and shows images from Flickr, Google and Yahoo.  Wordhippo.com tells a word’s meaning, a synonym, an antonym, its pronunciation, and words which rhyme with it.  Wordhippo translates words into other languages too.  These dictionaries are great for English language learners.

These are just seven of the suggestions in 101 Strategies to Make Academic Vocabulary Stick.  Further information about each strategy is available in the References section of the book, including the names of educators who “invented” the strategies and the research to back them up.

And you thought you were creative!

Talk to babies, even before they are born

Recently I visited my two-month-old grandson for a week.  As much as possible, I held him.  And when he was awake, I talked to him.

EPSON MFP image

I would look into his alert grey eyes and jabber on and on—about the inch of snow expected, about a book I had read, about what a terrible burper he was.  I used the same adult vocabulary I would use to talk to you but perhaps with more inflection and facial animation.

His eyes would follow me but mostly he would listen—listen to me describing the soft, touchable fabric of his onesie, or listen to my theories about why he slept so little.  I would ask him questions. “What do you want for lunch?  Milk or milk?  Do you want to look over my shoulder or look straight ahead?  How’s your diaper?”  He stared back attentively at first, but by the end of the week when I would talk to him, he would smile, quiver and say, “oo, oo,” the only sound he could make.

Now there is research which confirms that babies not only hear before birth but once they are born, they prefer to hear the language they have heard in utero.  Above all newborns prefer to hear the voice of their mothers, but next in priority they prefer to hear the voices of people who speak the same language as the mother, voices with the same rhythms.

We know that phonemes—the basic sound units of language—can be recognized by new babies in the weeks following birth.  Previously it was thought that babies couldn’t recognize slight differences in language sounds until the babies were several months old.  But now we know that babies’ sound perception and preference begins in the womb.

How can we help new babies to develop language skills?

EPSON MFP image

  • Pregnant women should talk to their babies before birth. They should provide opportunities for unborn children to hear language spoken.  This can mean babies’ overhearing conversations between mother and father; it can mean babies’ overhearing phone conversations or radio news; it can mean babies’ hearing the mother talk to herself.  Little ears are listening, so we should give them language to hear.
  • Newborn babies are far from “empty-headed.” Already they have heard hundreds, maybe thousands of hours of spoken language, and have developed a preference for the language of their mothers.  Once born, babies are refining their understanding of that language’s sounds as they listen to their caregivers’ speech.  We should provide opportunities for babies to hear speech—while mothers are feeding babies, while caregivers are changing babies’ diapers, while grandparents are holding babies.
  • Babies’ brains are functioning at an abstract level from their earliest days. They hear phonemes like the sound of “m” in “milk,” and then hear that same “m” sound in “mom,” and learn that the same sounds are used over and over with different results.  Years later, they will take this knowledge and apply it when they learn to read.

Did you know that according to a 1995 study*, the most important thing we can do while caring for a child is to talk to the child?  Or that the three-year-old children of well educated, professional parents hear three times as many words as the three-year-old children of poorly educated parents?

In fact if you listen to the vocabulary of a child, you can predict his success in life.  That’s how strong the correlation is between vocabulary and career success.

Talk, talk, talk, talk, talk to your children, including your babies.  If you have never chatted with an infant, swallow your pride and allow yourself to seem foolish.  It’s one of the best things you can do to ensure your child’s future success.

*Hart, B and Risley, T.  (1995).  Meaningful differences in the everyday experiences of young American children.  Baltimore:  Paul Brookes.