September 21, 2014

The Eyes Have It: Vocabulary Instruction Through Images

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While building vocabulary is one of the six shifts of the Common Core State Standards, it is also the key to helping children read increasingly complex text.  The more words a child knows and understands, the more complex the text they can read and understand, the more they are likely to learn.  In fact, vocabulary knowledge is the strongest predictor of reading success across content areas. It’s a lovely symbiotic relationship.

Read aloud is one of the important efforts we make toward building student vocabulary. When the text presents challenging words, we stop and ask students to think about what they know about the word, asking  “Are there any clues in the text that help you understand the word meaning? Can the person sitting next to you offer you any insight into the word? We encourage children to turn and talk, which they do obediently, but when we listen closely, what they’re saying is, “Do you know what it means? Me neither.” They shrug and dream up a definition based on imaginations or loose connections. Not very productive.

As we work with students to build vocabulary, we try to be intentional about the places where we stop and think about language. Rather than using the collective knowledge of students in the class to come up with a pieced together definition, we have shifted our usual directive of “Turn and talk to the person next to you about the word “frontier,” to “Turn and talk to the person next to you about the word  frontier. If you don’t know what it means, this is a picture of a frontier. Use the clues in this photograph to help you.”


Or, as an alternative, before or after reading the book, we might say, “Let’s try to figure out the word motionless. If you don’t know what it means, consider the way it is used in these examples to help you formulate the definition:

  • He lay motionless on the ground after being hit in the head by a rock.
  • It was the middle of July and the air was motionless.

Finally, showing students a picture of the opposite of motionless, can help deepen their understandings of the word.

Asking students to work through vocabulary in these ways forces them to practice reading closely and work to use additional text resources to build background knowledge.  It invites them to deeply process the word based on text as opposed to grabbing at straws. The kids are doing the work, but their efforts aren’t random. Rather, images and sample sentences (other texts) serve as scaffolds (rather than us!).

(If you are interested in building vocabulary using images, you might want to check out  Literacyhead.  It requires a subscription to the whole site but soon, we will launch WordEyes, which will focus specifically on vocabulary instruction and be more affordable.)

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