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Students with Different Vocabulary Levels Respond Differently to Particular Teaching Strategies

Many classrooms with students who are DHH represent a varied population of children. Access to language plays a large role in development of vocabulary regardless of whether it is in signed languages or spoken languages. Oftentimes, students with a lack of access to language at home come to school lacking a rich vocabulary foundation. At the same time, students who have greater access to language come to school with a very rich foundation of vocabulary and actually learn new words in a different way, at a faster pace and making use of incidental learning (Mervis & Bertrand, 1994), which is the ability to learn words without direct or explicit adult instruction. Thus, students with different vocabulary levels need different strategies in order to learn vocabulary.

Research suggests that these two types of students actually learn new vocabulary in different ways (Lederberg & Spencer, 2009). The instructional strategies used, therefore, are also different. Check out the chart below for some examples of effective instructional strategies when teaching new vocabulary to students at different language levels.

Vocabulary Development Chart

Here is a classic example of a story reading lesson for The Very Hungry Caterpillar (Carle, 1994). This lesson illustrates vocabulary instruction for different children.

Language development Chart

Extended communication is the process of discussion or explanation (without visual support) to describe a word or an idea (Hoff & Naigles, 2002)

Fast-mapping’ or ‘novel-mapping’ refers to a rate of vocabulary acquisition that is efficient and requires few exposures and no direct reference to the target word (Lederberg, Prezbindowski, & Spencer, 2000)


Brackenbury, T., Ryan, T., & Messenheimer, T. (2005). Incidental word learning in a hearing child of deaf adults. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 11(1), 76-93.  It is unclear how children develop the ability to learn words incidentally (i.e., without direct instruction or numerous exposures). This investigation examined the early achievement of this skill by longitudinally tracking the expressive vocabulary and incidental word-learning capacities of a hearing child of Deaf adults who was natively learning American Sign Language (ASL) and spoken English. Despite receiving only 20 percent of language input in spoken English, the child's expressive vocabularies at 16 and 20 months of age, in each language, were similar to those of monolingual age-matched peers. At 16 months of age, the child showed signs of greater proficiency in the incidental learning of novel ASL signs than she did for spoken English words. At 20 months of age, the child was skilled at incidental word learning in both languages. These results support the methodology as it applies to examining theoretical models of incidental word learning. They also suggest that bilingual children can achieve typical vocabulary levels (even with minimal input in one of the languages) and that the development of incidental word learning follows a similar trajectory in ASL and spoken English.

Carle, E. (1994). The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Penguin Group (USA).  The Very Hungry Caterpillar is a classic, but timely story that still entertains while teaching several lessons. It can be used to show the scientific process of a butterfly's development in a matter that very young kids can understand; teach the days of the week; and teach sequence of events.

Golinkoff, R.M., Shuff-Bailey, M., Olguin, R., & Ruan, W. (1995). Young children extend novel words at the basic level: Evidence for the principle of categorical scope. Developmental Psychology, 31(3), 494-507.  If young children approached the task of word learning with a specific hypothesis about the meaning of novel count nouns, they could make the problem of word learning more tractable. Six experiments were conducted to test children's hypotheses about how labels map to object categories. Findings indicated that (a) three- and four-year-olds function with an antithematic bias; (b) children do not reliably extend novel nouns to superordinate exemplars when perceptual similarity is controlled until approximately age seven; and (c) children expect novel nouns to label taxonomic categories at the basic level, even in the presence of a perceptually compelling distractor. Results are interpreted as supporting the principle of categorical scope

Lederberg, A.R., Prezbindowski, A.K., & Spencer, P.E. (2000). Word-learning skills of deaf preschoolers: The development of novel mapping and rapid word-learning strategies. Child Development, 71(6), 1571-1585.  Assessed word-learning skills of 19 deaf/hard-of-hearing preschoolers either with novel mapping strategy to learn new words, or after minimal exposure when reference was explicitly established. Found that 11 children were able to learn words in both contexts, five only in the second, and two in neither. The latter seven children eventually were able to learn in both contexts.

Lederberg, A.R. & Spencer, P.E. (2009). Word learning abilities in Deaf and hard of hearing preschoolers: Effect of lexicon size and language modality. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 14(1), 44-62.  Deaf and hard-of-hearing (DHH) children's ability to rapidly learn novel words through direct reference and through novel mapping (i.e., inferring that a novel word refers to a novel object) was examined. Ninety-eight DHH children, ranging from 27 to 82 months old, drawn from 12 schools in five states participated. In two tasks that differed in how reference was established, word-learning abilities were measured by children's ability to learn novel words after only three exposures. Three levels of word-learning abilities were identified. Twelve children did not rapidly learn novel words. Thirty-six children learned novel words rapidly but only in the direct reference task. Forty-nine children learned novel words rapidly in both direct reference and novel mapping tasks. These levels of word-learning abilities were evident in children who were in oral-only and in signing environments, in children with cochlear implants, and in deaf children of deaf parents. Children's word-learning abilities were more strongly correlated to lexicon size than age, and this relation was similar for children in these different language-learning environments. Acquisition of these word-learning abilities seems based on linguistic mechanisms that are available to children in a wide range of linguistic environments. In addition, the word-learning tasks offer a promising dynamic assessment tool.

Mervis, C.B. & Bertrand, J. (1994). Acquisition of the novel name-nameless category (N3C) principle. Child Development, 65, 1646-1662.  Toddlers' acquisition of the Novel Name-Nameless Category (N3C) principle was examined to investigate the developmental lexical principles framework and the applicability of the specificity hypothesis to relations involving lexical principles. In Study 1, we assessed the ability of 32 children between the ages of 16 and 20 months to use the N3C principle (operationally defined as the ability to fast map). As predicted, only some of the children could fast map. This finding provided evidence for a crucial tenet of the developmental lexical principles framework: Some lexical principles are not available at the start of language acquisition. Children who had acquired the N3C principle also had significantly larger vocabularies and were significantly more likely to demonstrate two-category exhaustive sorting abilities than children who had not acquired the principle. The two groups of children did not differ in either age or object permanence abilities. The 16 children who could not fast map were followed longitudinally until they attained a vocabulary spurt; at that time, their ability to fast map was retested (Study 2). Results provided a longitudinal replication of the findings of Study 1. Implications of these findings for both the developmental lexical principles framework and the specificity hypothesis are discussed.