Teacher Responses That Further Build Word Knowledge

An important element for developing children's understanding of word meanings is the teacher's reinforcement of those nascent understandings. Especially for young children it is important that the teacher give voice to the elements of developing word meaning that may be difficult for children to express on their own. And it is equally important that the teacher reveal aspects of word meaning that may not be readily apparent to young learners. No matter how well planned a lesson may be, a major part of all teaching is that combination of thoughtfulness and improvisational skill that allows a teacher to respond productively to children's comments. In this section, we provide some of the ways teachers responded to what children said to enhance children's understanding as well to encourage them to respond to comments offered by their peers.

Reinforcing Connections Between Words and Meanings

When children contribute examples, it is important to acknowledge the appropriateness of the example and to show how it connects to elements of the word's meaning. For


Teacher: Who can tell about something that would be absurd?

Child: A rock that can walk.

Teacher: A rock that can walk would really be absurd, because that doesn't make any sense at all!

Teacher: What is something you might gaze at on a hot day?

Child: I'd gaze at a swimming pool.

Teacher: Okay. If it's a hot day you might gaze at that swimming pool, because what would you really want to do?

Adding to Children's Network of Related Words

Asking children how a new word relates to words they already know helps them understand how words fit into their previous knowledge and gives them ideas of how they can use the new word. For example:

Teacher: When you're exhausted you're really tired, tell us how it feels?

Child: Sweaty.

Child: Like I want to lay down.

Child: Out of breath.

Teacher: If somebody, is grumpy, how are they acting, what do they do?

Child: Mad.

Child: Got a mean face.

Child: Being ugly.

Suggesting Ways to Apply the Word

Prompting children to think about situations in their lives that relate to a new word increases the chances that children will recall and use the word when appropriate circumstances occur. Some examples follow:

Teacher: When you come in from recess, you could say, "I'm exhausted." When you climb the stairs, you could say, "I'm exhausted." When else could you say you were exhausted?

Child: After riding my bike.

Child: When I stay up late.

Child: When I run to see who wins.

Teacher: I need to remind myself to stop at the store on the way home from school. Sometimes I remind you to bring in your homework. When are some times you might have to remind someone to do something?

Child: Remind my mother to help me plant seeds tomorrow.

Child: Remind my brother it's my turn to say the [TV] program to watch.

Involving Children in Responding to Peers' Comments

In many cases, connections between children's examples and word meaning can be provided by the children themselves. Prompting children to do this helps them develop the kind of thinking that promotes the building of such connections. Having other children play this role also spreads around the thinking by getting several children involved. And, further, it makes it more likely that children will attend to their peers' examples if they know they might be asked to comment on them. After a child offers an example of how a word might be used, a teacher might follow up by posing questions such as those below, to elicit comments from other students:

• Does what Jack just told us about sound festive to you?
• What do you think of that—could a new bike be dazzling?
• What does it mean that Shana is reluctant to eat spinach?

Isabel L. Beck is professor of education in the Department of Instruction and Learning at the University of Pittsburgh and senior scientist at the university's Learning Research and Development Center, where Margaret G. McKeown is a research scientist. Linda Kucan is assistant professor in the Department of Language, Reading and Exceptionalities at Appalachian State University. The article is excerpted with permission from Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction, by Isabel Beck, Margaret G. McKeown, and Linda Kucan, the Guilford Press, New York, © 2002.


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By Isabel L. Beck, Margaret G. McKeown, and Linda Kucan

Teacher Responses That Further Build Word Knowledge

American Educator, Spring 2003