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Enriching the Verbal Environment

This is a must-read for teachers planning on revamping their vocab instruction! Few educational authors can blend research, theory and practical examples like the vocabulary instruction expert Isabel Beck and her co-authors Margaret G. McKeown and Linda Kucan. This excerpt, from Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction, offers creative ideas about how to motivate "word wizards" of all ages to extend their vocabulary use beyond the classroom walls.

Ms. K's fourth-grade classroom:

MS. K: Good afternoon.
DARLEEN: Salutations, Ms. K!
MELISSA: Greetings!
DANIEL: Hello!
MS. K: So, how was recess?
BETH: Invigorating.
THOMAS: Exhausting. We played football!
LAURA: Delightful. There was a lovely breeze.
ROBERT: Abbreviated. It was too short for me!

The above exchange is an example of the kind of conversation that might take place in a classroom that provides a rich verbal environment for students, an environment in which words are valued as interesting and important. In such an environment, literature and poetry that celebrate language are shared. For example, it is likely that the teacher and students in the above exchange have been reading The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster (1964), a fantasy in which a Word Market is only one of the stopping places that Milo, the main character, visits on his journey through Dictionopolis.

To this point, we have mostly considered texts as sources of words, but there are many other sources. The purpose of this chapter is to consider those other sources and to show how they can be used to bring words to life in the classroom. One major source is the teacher's own language as illustrated below:

DARLEEN: Ms. K, look at Melissa's backpack!
MS. K: (admiring the stickers and sparkly appliqu├ęs) Oh, Melissa, I really like the way you've embellished your backpack!
DARLEEN: Embellished? What's that mean?
MELISSA: It means my backpack's cool!

The above exchange is an example of a teacher being alert to opportunities to apply sophisticated words to everyday situations. A teacher's language and imagination brought to bear on situations and happenings in the classroom are a major source for creating a rich verbal environment. Ms. H, the first-grade teacher we discussed in Chapter 4, spontaneously but judiciously labeled situations with "grown-up" words. Here are some favorites from her classroom:

  • A student who worked and worked at writing his name more clearly was called persistent.
  • When children talked about others "copying them," she offered imitate.
  • When the children completed good work, she called it exceptional.
  • When she announced that an individual who had a particular skill would be visiting, he was called an expert
  • When the class was behaving well, she called them mature.
  • When the brother of one of their favorite teachers was killed, she said that the teacher was feeling very forlorn.

Ms. H then placed such words on a bulletin board with the label "Wonderful Words." When possible she would use them in her conversations with the children.

What is a rich verbal environment?

The idea of a rich verbal environment is to have words in play nearly all of the time; perhaps we can think of it as a classroom rife with words. This means both a frequent use of words that have been taught and taking any and all opportunities to add words to students' surroundings. Even if a teacher can't keep track of all of them, it is valuable to sprinkle the environment generously with words!

The idea of sprinkling the environment with words may seem in contrast to what we have stressed in earlier chapters, the need for multiple encounters with words for them to truly become known. But here we are talking about an additional goal of vocabulary instruction—that of having students become generally alert to words and word use, to become interested in words. It is true that not all of the words that appear in the students' environment will be learned. But, then again, if students do not encounter new words, there is no possibility of learning them. Exposure will provide students with a chance to pick up and use some words, or an opportunity to recognize other words that they will eventually meet in subsequent experiences.

Paying attention to words

A good starting point for creating a rich verbal environment is to establish the importance of paying attention to words. One way to emphasize such importance is to encourage students to notice examples of words they are learning in school being used in contexts outside of school. As we described in Chapter 5, extension of word use beyond the classroom was one of the important aspects of our vocabulary research. We found that gimmicks can increase the chances that this will occur. The gimmick we used in our vocabulary studies was the Word Wizard chart. This was a chart of students' names with space to add tally marks as they brought in sightings or uses of words that had been introduced to their class. They could earn points for reporting sightings of target words or for using them.

Before introducing the Word Wizard notion to our fourth-grade vocabulary research classrooms, we engaged in an "advertising campaign" about the opportunity to become aWordWizard. Specifically, we distributed leaflets entitled "You Can Be a Word Wizard!" The leaflet described with engaging graphics the different categories that students could achieve, with the highest being, of course, Word Wizard. Other categories included Word Wildcat, Word Whirlwind, Word Winner, Word Worker, and Word Watcher. On another fold of the leaflet were descriptions of how points could be earned. For example:

If you hear a word—on TV, on the radio, on the street, or at home— you can earn 1 point. Just tell your teacher where you heard or saw the word and how it was used.

On the back fold of the leaflet students were told to—

  • Look for your name on the Word Wizard chart.
  • Watch for special events for Word Wizard points.

Points were tallied every few weeks, and students received certificates based on their totals. The certificates were designed around the different categories.

To earn their points, students had to describe the contexts in which the words were used. An interesting feature of this activity that we discovered is that students' fabrications still accomplished the purposes of the activity. That is, sometimes students made up a story about using or hearing the word even though it did not occur. A long remembered example was the boy who reported to the teacher, "I told my mother I was so famished, I was going to devour everything in the refrigerator, and that I didn't care whether it was nutritious." Three points! One could well question the veracity of the reported incident; what cannot be questioned, however, is that the student had used the words in a context beyond the classroom.

We can guarantee from our experience that this activity is successful! The fourth graders in the participating classes went absolutely wild with bringing in words. So much so that a constant topic of conversation at our meetings with the teachers was how to manage the enormity of tallying the students' points!

Since using the Word Wizard in our studies and describing it to teachers, we have seen teachers develop a host of variations that are useful for similar purposes and across various grade levels. In Ms. H's classroom, the Word Wizard device she created allowed first-grade children to "show off " their new vocabulary expertise. At any time that a child could explain the meaning of three of the words under the display, she or he received each of those words on cards, as well as a Word Wizard hat. Then, with the Word Wizard hat and the three cards, the child could go through the school and any adult could read the word on one of the cards and ask the child to explain its meaning. The other teachers, and in particular the principal, got into it, and there were many oohhs and aahhs heard when a Word Wizard was in the hall!

For older students, finding words and uses for words outside of class can be part of their grade or extra credit. A posted roster with tally marks for the number of sightings can help the students know where they stand.

The discovery of examples of target words in various environments can be left up to the students' motivation, as in the case of doing so for extra credit and, indeed, for Word Wizard points. However, looking for examples of words in various environments can be primed somewhat. For example, the teacher can assign a word or several words for students to find or to invent an example or application for. The teacher might ask students to find the words reasonable, inexpensive, or competitive in newspaper or TV advertisements.

Another variation of assigning students to engage with words outside of school is to ask them to identify or create a situation that could be described by a target word. For instance, ask students to find something whimsical in the news, or challenge them to find as many possible applications of a short list of target words (e.g., ultimate, diverse, unique) as they can in one evening—using sources such as the newspaper, books they read, TV programs, or their family's conversation. This could be an individual or team competition.

Another activity for taking student's word learning beyond the classroom, which would also promote general word awareness, is to create a Suggestion Box into which students place candidate words for expanding the word pool. We discovered this notion when students involved in the vocabulary research discussed earlier spontaneously began to suggest other words that we should include in our vocabulary program. The three words we remember are crevice, unique, and triumphantly. What this indicated to us was that students were becoming increasingly aware of words in their environment, especially taking notice of words they were not familiar with.

You Try It

Create a Suggestion Box in your classroom. Challenge students to find interesting words that they would like to add to their vocabulary and place them into the Suggestion Box. Several times a week you might set aside a few minutes to pull a few words from the Suggestion Box and talk about them.

From Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction, by Isabel Beck, Margaret G. McKeown and Linda Kucan. Copyright 2002 by Guilford Press. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission of Guilford Press.

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This excerpt from "Bringing Words to Life" helps teachers decide which "Tier Two" words to prioritize.