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Varied and Rich Word Use is Important During All Communications in the Classroom

While much research on children with typical hearing has focused on the amount of communication to which a child is exposed and its relationship to child language acquisition, it is naive to think that simply increasing quantity is sufficient for advancing language competence.  To suggest that children exposed to more communication will have better vocabularies does not take into account the types of communication around them.

When communication is content-rich and varied, there is a greater likelihood that the amount of communication leads to vocabulary growth.  Teachers of children who intentionally provide substantive information and explanations at a level appropriate for the child, contribute to the child’s vocabulary growth as supported by a number of research studies (Collins, 2010; Hart & Risley, 1995; Hoff & Naigles, 2002; Weizman & Snow, 2002).

However, when communication is largely prohibitive, (e.g.,“don’t touch that”), management oriented, (e.g., “keep the blocks in the block area”), or  provides non-specific praise, (e.g.“good job“) the  communication may not contribute substantively to vocabulary development . 

Let’s face it though . . .

Sometimes it is necessary to establish boundaries so that children are safe in certain activities and cautious with particular items. But we can do so in a way that builds vocabulary.   For instance, consider how the following statements, which include specific vocabulary, might be used instead of the prohibition “Don’t touch that.”

  1. Our flowers are in a glass vase.  The glass vase is fragile; it might break. We want to be careful with the glass vase when we try to look at the flowers closely.  We don’t want the glass doesn’t break and cut our fingers.
  2. The lid to the toy box has a hinge.  The hinge is made of metal and helps the lid open and close.  When the hinge closes the lid we don’t want our fingers too close to the hinge. If our fingers get stuck in the hinge they will get pinched. We want to be careful to keep our fingers away from the hinge when it is closing so they don’t get pinched.

That didn’t seem too difficult, did it?  You may be thinking, “Well, my children don’t even know the words “fragile” or “pinched.”  But real life examples provide children with the opportunity for using these rich vocabulary words; they will never learn new words if they are never exposed to them.  The context rich environment in which new words are used actually supports the learning of these unfamiliar words

Practical application for the classroom

Sometimes teachers have to provide directions to their students to prevent chaos and bring order to the instructional day.  See if you can rephrase the following management oriented directives so that they include some rich vocabulary:

Put your folders in this box (hint, think “organize”).

Line up for PE (hint, think “schedule”).

And finally, can you consider other ways to reinforce a child’s effort other than the immediate and ubiquitous “good job”?

These tips for richer communication can be shared with parents, no matter what the age of the child. Conscious attention to the words/signs chosen for communication in any one of the many situations calling for parent or teacher/professional and child dialog, is the responsibility of all mature language users with whom a child comes in contact.  Let’s take advantage of every communication exchange to build a rich and varied vocabulary for our students with hearing loss!

FAQ:  How do I make my communication with students more effective for vocabulary building?


Collins, M.F. (2010). ELL preschoolers’ English vocabulary acquisition and story comprehension from storybook readingEarly Childhood Research Quarterly, 25, 84-97.  Interest in the relationship between early language development and children’s later reading skill has prompted researchers to look back further and further into children’s language experiences and competence prior to formal schooling. It is now commonly recognized that a number of specific skills and understandings are required as a foundation for learning to read and for continuing to advance in reading skill beyond the beginning reading phase.  Vocabulary is one of several important components of oral language skill.  Prior vocabulary research demonstrates correlations with later school success, shows causal relationships with reading comprehension, and points out the difficulty of changing the trajectory of vocabulary acquisition once it is established very early in childhood.

Hart, B. & Risley, T. (1995).  Meaningful differences in the everyday experiences of young American children, Baltimore: Brookes Publishing.  This study of ordinary families and how they talk to their very young children is no ordinary study at all. Betty Hart and Todd Risley wanted to know why, despite best efforts in preschool programs to equalize opportunity, children from low-income homes remain well behind their more economically advantaged peers years later in school. Their painstaking study began by recording each month - for 2-1/2 years - one full hour of every word spoken at home between parent and child in 42 families, categorized as professional, working class, or welfare families. Years of coding and analyzing every utterance in 1,318 transcripts followed. Rare is a database of this quality. "Remarkable," says Assistant Secretary of Education Grover (Russ) Whitehurst, of the findings: By age three, the recorded spoken vocabularies of the children from the professional families were larger than those of the parents in the welfare families. Between professional and welfare parents, there was a difference of almost 300 words spoken per hour. Extrapolating this verbal interaction to a year, a child in a professional family would hear 11 million words while a child in a welfare family would hear just three million. The implications for society are staggering: Hart and Risley's follow-up studies at age nine show that the large differences in the amount of children's language experience were tightly linked to large differences in child outcomes. And yet the implications are encouraging, too. As the authors conclude their preface to the 2002 printing of Meaningful Differences, "the most important aspect to evaluate in child care settings for very young children is the amount of talk actually going on, moment by moment, between children and their caregivers." By giving children positive interactions and experiences with adults who take the time to teach vocabulary, oral language concepts, and emergent literacy concepts, children should have a better chance to succeed at school.

Hoff, E. & Naigles, L. (2002).  How children use input to acquire a lexiconChild Development, 73, 418-433.  The contributions of social processes and computational processes to early lexical development were evaluated. A re-analysis and review of previous research cast doubt on the sufficiency of social approaches to word learning. An empirical investigation of the relation of social-pragmatic and data-providing features of input to the productive vocabulary of sixty-three two-year-old children revealed benefits of data provided in mother-child conversation, but no effects of social aspects of those conversations. The findings further revealed that the properties of data that benefit lexical development in two-year-olds are quantity, lexical richness, and syntactic complexity. The nature of the computational mechanisms implied by these findings is discussed. An integrated account of the roles of social and computational processes to lexical development is proposed.

The Hanen Centre:  Provides information about promoting young children’s social, language and literacy development, including “Learning Language and Loving It” by Elaine Weitzman and Janice Greenberg.

Weizman, Z.O, & Snow,C.E. (2002).  Lexical input as related to children’s vocabulary acquisition:  Effects of sophisticated exposure and support for meaningDevelopmental Psychology, 37, 263-279.  A corpus of nearly 150,000 maternal word-tokens used by 53 low-income mothers in 263 mother-child conversations in five settings (e.g., play, mealtime, and book readings) was studied. Ninety-nine percent of maternal lexical input consisted of the 3,000 most frequent words. Children's vocabulary performance in kindergarten and later in 2nd grade related more to the occurrence of sophisticated lexical items than to quantity of lexical input overall. Density of sophisticated words heard and the density with which such words were embedded in helpful or instructive interactions, at age five at home, independently predicted over one-third of the variance in children's vocabulary performance in both kindergarten and 2nd grade. These two variables, with controls for maternal education, child nonverbal IQ, and amount of child's talk produced during the interactive settings, at age five, predicted 50% of the variance in children's 2nd-grade vocabulary.