We are all always learning new words, even in adulthood. For example, think back to what happens for you when you pick up a text that’s unfamiliar and challenging, whether it’s a medical chart from the doctor, an instruction manual to install a new TV, or a cousin’s quilting manual and directions. Just like us as adults, children will need to be learning and noticing words throughout their lives.
So whatever we can do to support our children to enjoy noticing, collecting, and talking about new words can help them towards lifelong skills in learning and literacy. But did you know that it takes 17 encounters with a word before learning it?! Those encounters can be a mix of seeing, hearing, reading, speaking and writing a word, often with a progression through these different ways of interacting with a word. With this in mind, and knowing that children have so many words still to learn, how do we choose what words to emphasize, to ‘collect,’ to point out to children?
Below are tips for getting the biggest ‘bang for your buck’ in Word Work and Word Study.
Needing 17 encounters with a word to learn it doesn’t need to feel boring to a child. Word study needs to be fun for a child to want to work on their words! Make word ‘work’ feel playful through humor, silliness, and games. Games like word or letter scavenger hunts, go fish, memory, and charades can get students more excited about repeatedly seeing the same words. Even a basic game-like activity like putting word cards out and asking a child how quickly they can say all the words and pick each card up, or jump on each card, can make word practice fun, competitive, and interactive! Ask a Teton Literacy staff member if you would like rules or more ideas for any of these games.
Another authentic way to make word study fun can be to make it a part of your family time together. Weave in a few new words that come up as you participate in a family activity, whether it’s an outdoor sport, church service, car trip, or gaming, and use these times as an opportunity to teach these words to your child. This offers an exciting authentic way to introduce and reinforce themed words with your child, and these will be words your child will have a personal connection to.
Choose to focus on High Frequency Words: There are word lists, only 1 or 2 pages for each grade level, that include common words that children will see a lot. These word lists are called Dolch words, Sight Words, and High Frequency Words. Use these short word lists as your guide for foundational words that your child should learn by the end of each grade level. Choose 5-12 words at a time to turn into a game, like the games suggested above. And remember, with the need to encounter a word 17 times to learn it, plus many young children’s obsession with repeating games over and over again, you can play the same game with the same word list at least a few times before moving on!
Notice and emphasize word patterns
Focusing on word patterns appropriate to their reading level can set children up to notice and learn patterns that will contribute to success with groups of words, instead of just one word at a time. Look up or ask your child’s teacher or Teton Literacy staff for direction towards common syllable types and common word patterns at your child’s age level. Use these to direct informal interactive word play: noticing and collecting words, word scavenger hunts, whiteboard writing, and word games.
What does it mean to ‘know’ a word?
Even though there are critical words for children to learn for reading success, don’t forget to notice, ‘collect,’ or talk about at least a few longer words regularly. Think of us as adults as the model: there are some words we know and we can use in writing and speaking; there are other words we either have no knowledge of or maybe we have a general sense of what it means (ie: parsimonious, polynomial). Students don’t necessarily need to know and remember these longer words (ie: column, bureau), and focusing too much time on these longer words may come at the expense of learning the most important words at their grade level. (Beck, Isabel, Margaret McKeown, and Linda Kucan 2002, Bringing Words to Life)
A good solution is to choose a few of the longer words to talk about with a child in a sitting, but you don’t need to add them to any word list you have. This will add one encounter to their awareness of the word, as well as continue to encourage lifelong word curiosity, but at the same time it won’t take away from focusing on the more common words a child needs to learn.