The Importance of Teaching Vocabulary In Preschool and Beyond

People often ask me about the teaching methodology developed at Little Sponges® and why we focus heavily on vocabulary acquisition and oral communication.  So, I decided to write about the research and the rationale for our approach to bilingual learning. 

 

When most people think about literacy, they immediately picture children reading and writing.  But the most critical component of literacy begins well before the child can pull a word from the page…It is the oral language. (Amanda Morgan, 2019) Before we could read or write the word “ball”, we learned what it means and how to say it.  I think we all intrinsically understand that at the crux of literacy is the ability to convey and receive meaning through words, and that process begins with the spoken word.  I love Amanda Morgan’s statement: “Without vocabulary skills, reading and writing become labored and meaningless”.  

Over the years, research has revealed that although people can and do learn word meanings incidentally, such learning most often does not come easily and may not be very effective (Nation, 2008). This means that for ESOL, DLL and bilingual programs, intentional vocabulary teaching is critical, and part of a teacher’s job is to incorporate deliberate vocabulary teaching into each class to help students develop the breadth and depth of the vocabulary. (Michale Lessard-Cluston, 2013)  

The Little Sponges® approach to language learning is built on the idea that oral language and vocabulary mastery (both receptive and productive) is the key to building a strong foundation for success.  Little Sponges® program includes explicit vocabulary teaching and review exercises that can be done in class or at home.

But before we get into breaking down how the Little Sponges® program builds vocabulary, let’s talk about why should language learning focus so heavily on building a child’s vocabulary bank?

  1. There is a link between a child’s vocabulary knowledge in preschool to their future academic success. A 2011 study found that the volume and quality of preschool teachers’ “teacher talk” predicted their students’ long term reading and comprehension abilities later in their academic years. When students are regularly exposed to sophisticated vocabulary in context, their reading and comprehension levels rise drastically.
  2. A child who has a larger vocabulary is better able to understand more of the context surrounding those words. This makes it easier for them to comprehend the material, process its meaning, and commit the material to memory. Students who develop this linguistic skill early on will undoubtedly have an easier time as they progress through school.
  3. Because the amount and quality of vocabulary is a determining factor in future academic success, students who fall under a certain socioeconomic line often are at a disadvantage to peers who grow up in a more academically rigorous regimen. In 1995, researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley recorded hours of interactions between parents and children. What they found was that by age three, the average child from a family in the professional class heard approximately 30 million more words than the average child living on welfare. This startling number undoubtedly contributes to the academic gap seen as students of different language abilities continue to progress in school. 

So how can Little Sponges® help?

The Little Sponges curriculum is designed specifically for young children.  Here’s how we help build vocabulary and oral communication skills through our Watch-Learn-Play method:

EXPLICIT VOCABULARY TEACHING VIA STORYTELLING

As with the above point about conversations, storytelling is a fantastic way to introduce vocabulary words in a conversation and real-life context. It is also a much more child-friendly teaching method than drab worksheets. When children are able to engage with a story, they naturally pick up pre-taught vocabulary words, new vocabulary words, and the context needed to tie them all together.

It is impossible to define all words and concepts using static images and verbal explanations, which is why Little Sponges uses several techniques to support vocabulary learning and improve comprehension. Little Sponges utilizes real life videos, acting of the puppets, context and audio cues to define new vocabulary and explain complex concepts. For example, teaching students about space and gravity can be difficult using flash cards and books. Here is a video that demonstrates how Little Sponges program uses multimedia to engage multiple senses and make learning more fun and effective than traditional methods. 

FUN REPETITION ACTIVITIES

Repetition is extremely important for vocabulary and language learning. “Estimates for the number of times someone needs to encounter a new word to learn it vary widely, but 10-20 exposures to new words and phrases have been found to be important to learning many of the aspects of vocabulary knowledge.” (Shmitt, 2010, p348).

Throughout the Little Sponges adventure videos, when a new vocabulary word is introduced, it is spoken at least twice. After watching the learning video a few times, students play the comprehension games to test their knowledge of new content and vocabulary comprehension. This allows them to practice new vocabulary through play.  In addition to that, students encounter the same vocabulary in their speaking, reading and writing activities.  This provides different modes of representation for each word and/or phrase making it easier for them to commit new vocabulary to memory.

PRODUCTIVE USE OF VOCABULARY

Although many factors influence vocabulary knowledge, practice is necessary to move receptive knowledge into productive use. Schmitt (2010, p 26) stated, “the more a learner engages with a new word, the more likely he/she is to learn it.” “Receptive knowledge is important, but if students do little more than read or hear a new word, they are unlikely to remember it, let alone use it. If, however, they interact with the word (recall, say or write it) and think about its meaning and any similarities (grammatical, etc) to other words they know, then the incremental learning discussed here is more likely to happen.” (Michale Lessard-Cluston, 2013) Throughout the Little Sponges adventure videos, Mishka and Frog often “talk” to each other, as well as to the audience, which invites student participation. In the Little Sponges review videos, Mishka and Frog ask questions about the story, giving students an opportunity to recall and use new vocabulary. It also helps when the teacher expands upon those questions. This vocabulary focused discussions are very important in the DLL classes and having beautiful visuals and interactive activities to support them is essential.  

STRATEGIC BRIDGING

The “bridge” is part of the lesson or unit where the focus is on instructing students in how to transfer what they have learned and stored in one language into another language. Teachers help students compare and contrast two languages, often focusing on the structure of the language. Students can identify cognates and false cognates to help them better comprehend and remember new vocabulary. Watch the video on the right to learn more about why bridging is important. 

By using bridging, Little Sponges® is able to help students connect what they already know in their native language to the second language they are learning. This comes in handy when learning new vocabulary in a second language, as it allows students to build on their linguistic foundation rather than starting from zero.  It also helps students build confidence in their learning abilities and eliminates unnecessary stress and frustration associated with full immersion. Once students learn new vocabulary, they are given opportunities to immerse themselves in one language at a time. 

ASSESSMENTS

We’ve all heard the saying, “What gets measured gets done.”  It means regular measurement and reporting of key performance indicators keeps you focused on your goals.  Little Sponges gives you diagnostic, formative and summative assessment data to inform your instruction and improve learning outcomes. You can use our assessments to find out what your students know in both their L1 and L2 and track their progress in both languages.  

SUMMARY

In summary, deliberate vocabulary teaching is very important in early grades and beyond.  If you are looking for resources to help your bilingual students learn vocabulary faster, please contact us to discuss how Little Sponges can help your school or request free trial subscription.  If you are a parent who is interested in raising a bilingual child and would like to try our program, check our our family subscription!