Effective teaching new word meanings to young children requires five key components:
- child-friendly definitions
- varied and relevant for children examples of how to use novel words in multiple contexts
- deep processing activities
- multiple encounters with novel words
- children’s engagement
In this short blogpost I want to focus only on the first component of effective vocabulary instruction:
Researchers (e.g. Beck et al., 2013) assert that children should be provided with simple, brief, and accessible child-friendly definitions for new words (followed by meaningful examples which children can easily relate to their life, experiences and pre-existing knowledge).
In instructional reality though, it is not easy to come up with simple but sufficiently precise definitions of new words.
Imagine that you want to explain to your child the word ‘stubborn’.
You could provide your child with a very detailed and precise definition:
having or showing dogged determination not to change one’s attitude or position on something, especially in spite of good reasons to do so
The problem is that your child is not likely to understand several words within the definition e.g. dogged, determination, attitude, position.
By the same token, providing a synonym might not help your child either, in particular when the synonym is actually harder to learn than the target word:
Children, who are in the need of vocabulary instruction (e.g. English language learners, low SES children) are not likely to benefit from such designed lexical instruction. In order to teach words effectively, definitions need to be as simple as possible.
OK. Let’s try to simplify the definition of the word ‘stubborn’:
A stubborn person is determined to do what she or he wants and refuses to do anything else.
This is a slightly better definition, however, it still consists of two challenging words, namely determined and refuse.
What about the following definitions?
not happy to accept change, help, or control
not happy to change his/her ideas
hard to deal with
always saying NO when asked to stop doing something
Now, these are child-friendly definitions. Although they might be not very precise, they offer young children a point of departure for learning a new word. The child is not going to understand the full meaning of the word ‘stubborn’ but it is OK. Children learn words meanings incrementally, they should not be expected to learn the full meaning after the first encounter.
It takes time and multiple exposures before the child will learn a new word. You might have to say to your child that he/she is as stubborn as a mule, explain the meaning of the idiom and relate to your child’s behavior. You might ask your child questions: When was the last time you were stubborn? Why was it? Such questions will help you connect the novel word with children’s life. You might also discuss the word within wider concepts, for instance, character and personality.
Although finding a simple but effective child-friendly definition is not always easy, parents can use websites and children dictionaries to address the problem. Just a few examples:
Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2013). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. Guilford Press.