Chapter Ten focused on the importance of developing a child’s vocabulary knowledge. There are two ways to teach vocab to children: the incidental approach, where skills are taught as the need arises in the child’s life, or the systematic approach, where skills are taught on a regular, planned basis (Gunning 331). Not surprisingly, most teachers use the systematic approach or a combination of the two. There are many good reasons to teach vocabulary. One goal is to improve reading comprehension. If children don’t know the definition of the words on the page, how can they understand what’s going on in the story? Another goal of vocabulary-learning is building self-confidence and self-efficacy. The more words a child understands, the more confident he or she will be in their reading abilities.
As might be expected, learning vocabulary is very important for ELL students. As Gunning so succinctly points out, “For ELLs, word knowledge rather than pronunciation or grammar is the key concern. If you don’t know the words, you have no chance of understanding what is being communicated or of communicating yourself” (347). After reading this chapter, I am pleased to discover that I have been implementing the very techniques that Gunning recommends for teaching vocabulary to the two ESL students that I currently have in fieldwork. Gunning says that much of the vocabulary-learning of ELL students, “will involve learning the English equivalent of words already known in their first language” (347). For my two Spanish-speaking students, I bought them each mini-notepads in which they could create their own Word Banks or Banco de Palabras. Every time we do an exercise or read a book, we then enter a list of English words and their Spanish equivalents into this Word Bank. On the first day that I introduced the Word Banks, we went over shapes, action verbs, the seasons, days of the week, and the months, and entered those words into the notebooks. We also draw pictures to represent the words, which Gunning recommends.
We always read bilingual books in Spanish and English, because I don’t think my students would be able to comprehend the story without the Spanish translation there to help them. I have also taught my students cognates—that is, words that have a common origin (for English and Spanish, that origin is usually Latin). For instance, during readings, I have pointed out the similarities between music and musica, invitation and invitación, family and familia, and minute and minuto, etc.
Just as the book suggests, I have seen the comprehension and the self-confidence in my students grow. My one student, though he still struggles to decode, is always eager to read to me and to show me what he has learned. My other student has come to realize how important it is to have both the Spanish and the English translations together in a book. Recently I gave my students the option of reading either in both Spanish and English or just in English. When the one student read his first page just in English, he realized his comprehension was suffering because he didn’t understand all the words, and for subsequent pages he read in both languages.
Vocabulary is a very important step in the reading process. Just because a child has mastered decoding does not mean the child has mastered the understanding of those words. Sometimes a child can rattle off a bunch of words and not understand any of it. Vocabulary expands the child’s “word bank” in their mind, improves their spelling skills, and prepares them to read more complicated books.
Thomas G. Gunning, Assessing and Correcting: Reading and Writing Difficulties, rev. ed. (Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon, 2010), 328-350.