Lumos Learning in Conversation with Ms Bonnie McRae

Importance of Vocabulary

Lumos Learning: Bonnie in our last podcast you mentioned the importance of increasing vocabulary for students can you elaborate on how vocabulary impacts reading?

Bonnie McRae: Thank you iris for asking me to join an additional Lumos learning podcast. I think vocabulary is essential to all learning. I’m a firm believer that vocabulary increases a student’s ability not only to read better but to speak better, to write better and therefore have a better understanding of the English language. Research has proven that many students come to school with limited english or no English vocabulary learning whatsoever. Quite often a student’s vocabulary at home they may hear more than one language, in the southern united states quite often it is english and spanish. However it can be english and location, it can be chinese, it can be Vietnamese, Russian whatever the immigrant’s primary language would have been. Parents at home speak the primary language and then students come to school do not hear that their primary language they only hear the new english language therefore they’re not even what we consider monolingual with only one primary language.

It’s important that students have an understanding and be exposed to language at an early level we know that the whole language approach from years ago specifically states that the better you think the better you speak, the better you write, the better you read. Teachers with students who come with no or limited language face many challenges. According to the oxford university of press students need to be able to do so much more than just reel off a list of words or just read, wrote what we call without the basic understanding. They need to be able to manipulate the english language so it becomes a part of their communication parents quite often don’t have the ability or lack the understanding themselves of how frequently vocabulary needs to be incorporated in a student student’s daily life. Too often students may be placed in front of a computer they may be playing games by themselves or outside. The parent may have to have a double job or may have a single parent at home so we as educators need to be sure that we immerse students in all vocabulary. A student has to listen to and understand one word at least 15 times for it to be totally embedded in their communication skills throughout their life.

importance of the vocabulary - lumos podcast

Lumos Learning: What may educators do to help close this learning gap in vocabulary mastery for students?

Bonnie McRae: In order for students to grasp and embrace new vocabulary words have to be not only seen they have to be experienced by the student with a combination of activities these can be oral reading memorization can be dictionary usage content context and other activities because of the situation we’re in now where many students are learning virtually from home there are multiple free resources and vocabulary games that students can play online as well parents need to participate with their students to make this total connection whether it be oral reading at a very young age or reciting small poetry going back to the basic classics students need to know that vocabulary is important in understanding teachers need to see that first of all there is a recognition of the understanding that a student may have a low vocabulary too often teachers may think well my kids knew this when they were at home because i spoke to my children but not all children have those same experiences which is no fault of the child nor of the parent it is just the society in which we live in now which diminishes a student’s vocabulary the teacher needs to be supportive in understanding of that in fact we can’t change what happens at
home we can change everything once a child comes into the classroom.

For example if a child in second or third grade is constantly using the word see instead of saying I visualized i could have imagined the teacher needs to say great thanks for attempting that let’s try a new word in place of that. Vocabulary lists should not be just a list of words with a definition associated to it and a dictation sentence once a week. Vocabulary words need to be throughout the classroom posted with pictures repeated daily in lessons. The teacher can also experience vocabulary words for the day or he or she will mention a word when the students enter and be sure to incorporate that new word throughout their lessons whether it be reading, writing, math science and social studies. Learning centers are an excellent tool not only for the younger learner but for the older student as well. Modeling is essential moreover in anything teachers need to model their instruction they need to use words correctly or even give what we call incorrect usage examples and see if the students will catch the teacher. They’ll find out that they will and the student will say that’s not the right way to use that word and the teacher will go oops you caught me let’s try a better way to use the word. So show the experience that teachers are real people is so very important, i have several examples that i would love to share with you as well.

Years ago, I taught in a low socioeconomic school district where i thought that all of the children should understand everything that my children at their age understood. I came to find out that the students did not have the high vocabulary that my own students at their age had, so what i had to do was build upon and that’s the most important thing is modeling, accepting and building upon new language skills. For example i had students sit in the classroom every morning and talk about their experiences. I had a young man who was from a different country who rarely spoke but he was brilliant in math he just was not developed in oral language vocabulary. His parents both worked out of the home so he didn’t have the oral communication and neither of them spoke english well. One day we were discussing pets and finally this young man raised his hand and i thought oh we’re running out of time i should have been finished with this in order to go on to my next lesson. But this boy has chosen to raise his hand so he wants to speak so i acknowledged his name and asked him to speak. He said yes yes i know dog i know dog i had dog dog dead and then he used an explicit word which was very inappropriate for school. All of the other students gasped but i did not shame the child because it was his first experience to speak openly i thanked him. I told him i was sorry that his dog had died and i also told him quietly to the side that particular word we just didn’t say in school. But then he began to open up little by little. He didn’t use any more explicit words but little by little he spoke. The young man’s name was so long it took over a page of primary writing paper to write down his last name. I thought this poor child will never be able to spell his last name but he was able to shortly thereafter. Because he started trying because i gave him encouragement. He started trying and now this young man has his own business and i’m so very proud. When i came back down here that i saw his business name on side of a building i was thrilled. Of course you have other children who do as i said come from homes where they have multiple language spoken.

importance of the vocabulary - lumos podcast

In vocabulary is affluent my own son was great on monday he got that list of vocabulary and spelling words and could write those sentences with mama’s help of course because being the active school teacher and mother we did homework every evening together. By wednesday he could make a hundred on that spelling test. He had a hundred every six weeks in spelling but the very next week when given a paragraph to write using the words from the week before, my son daniel could not spell the new words. I is because he did not embellish them in his own vocabulary and also because it has proven that only 15 of the population ever becomes fluent spellers. So the point of just spelling the word made no difference he could use the words, he could write the paragraphs but spelling the words did not come easily for him. So giving students multiple opportunities having word banks open in the classroom where the kids see and use those words, asking the students beforehand let’s look over this story find any words you don’t know, write them down. You’ll find that the majority of the students will have written down the same words so those should be your new vocabulary words not necessarily the words given from the textbook although some of them may be those vocabulary words from the textbook building self-esteem is what it all boils down to. In order to speak fluently and feel good about your speaking you need to feel that you understand and have self-esteem yourself be creative in a calming classroom so that students feel comfortable as you feel comfortable. Let children know how your emotions might be. One day coming into a classroom you may use the word uh horrific, I had a horrific morning and smaller children or even middle school children may say horrific Miss Mcrae don’t you mean you had a horrible or a yucky morning.

No it was horrific i almost ran a stop sign, i almost this this happened it was horrific, i wish i could start my day over. So you yourself show experiences using the new vocabulary as well preview the selection list is also good as we were talking about but new words need to be used with clues and cues for students as well as giving them experiences to choose what is it they want to read and write about. Because remember the better you think, the better you speak, the better you write, the better you read. I used to think that ah my kids are going to love a unit on teddy bears and dinosaurs and they all went and i thought what in the world is wrong with me, i am an affluent speaker i am an excellent teacher, i know what i’m doing but i wasn’t making choices that met the students needs. So then i asked them to choose topics then i started looking up difficult words for the next grade level because it’s not only the words that students need to use on their grade level, they need to be able to connect with life experiences and views with the next grade level. And by speaking better their vocabulary increases, their understanding increases, by increasing their understanding you’re increasing their self-esteem and their capability of being more fluent readers and writers.

Lumos Learning: Can you give us other examples of ways teachers can use vocabulary in their classrooms?

Bonie Mcrae: Certainly, when studies do show that as i said interesting in topics. I was afraid when i was younger, believe it or not and though i love to speak now i could speak to audiences of three to five hundred teachers and professors and superintendents and have done so because i feel secure in what i’m doing. But when i was the baby of four and i was mama’s shy one i rarely rarely spoke. One time i was at where were asked to write about something in fourth grade. When we started fourth grade write about your most memorable summer experience well the fallacy and all of that is some children don’t have any summer experiences to write about. The fallacy and that is memorable for me i almost drowned that summer i knew how to swim been swimming in lakes, creeks, oceans, some in swimming pools but not often. And a friend of mine and i were at a particular motel that had a private pool that you could pay to and go swim. Her parents knew the owners so we were swimming for free, we were having a race to see who could get to the end and back the fastest and i was winning. So i asked the owner how deep is it, he said you’re over 12 feet deep bonnie, i sunk immediately. Because i had never been in 12 feet deep water. I’d been in the ocean where the currents could have taken me away but that never bothered me because that’s where i grew up but i’d never been in a pool that was over 12 feet deep. And literally he had to jump in with clothes on to save me so to me that stuck in my mind and i wrote about it. The teacher had to stand up in front of the class and read, i was ridiculed and laughed at, i went home in tears that day because the kids thought it was hilarious. They weren’t compassionate because they’d never had that experience and they didn’t understand and the teacher did not understand. So i took it upon myself at that early age to say to myself i want to be a teacher. Because i want people to be more understanding of children and what they’re going through. Where i grew up you say you spoke two languages spanish at home and english school probably a mixture of both where i grew up, you weren’t allowed to speak spanish at school and back in the day. If you spoke Spanish you were severely punished and sent home what i couldn’t understand was why because we were a neighboring town with mexico and had a yearly celebration where we as children from the school learned spanish songs and spanish dances to participate in the parade and my best friends couldn’t speak their language at school. I felt it was so horrible i would have loved to have been able to have those experiences of learning how to speak multiple languages at school but did not have that opportunity. When i chose to become an educator if you look at my resume you’ll notice i gravitate to those low socioeconomic groups of children who may not have experiences whether they be English speaking students, spanish speaking students whether they be one ethnicity or another it doesn’t matter. I choose those students because i want to enrich their experiences at school because they may not have those opportunities at home and i want to invite the parents because our parents are our true connections to vocabulary. Once you teach the parents let me help you, let me show you what words your children will be learning.

I had another experience not as a teacher but i was in a way taught at a private school in the corpus christi area where the elite children went doctors and lawyers our children paid a lot of money to attend first grade where i taught. It was a private daycare first and second grade i taught both the first graders and the second graders we had a community member who had partnerships with a company from mexico for a car dealership and he brought his family over during the summer and wanted me to teach them English. So that they could fit in and understand, it was children from the age of two to the grandmother in my classroom the children had the best time and they learned so quickly and so rapidly. The first thing i told them was when you enter the room we will only speak english, we will speak spanish when we go out to play outside we will speak spanish, when we play games and eat in the cafeteria but in the room we will speak in english. The kids loved it i would write a sentence and we would read it together they would clap they would say hooray and the grandmother would shake her head and say no no no no. She only wanted to speak in spanish and then me translate which i could translate to English but when i finally had to explain to her that if you learn that way it’s not going to be embedded, if you learn fresh then you can associate and it will make the connections so in all actuality her grandchildren taught her speak english that summer. It was wonderful but they had vocabulary words and they would look up books and they would write their vocabulary word on a piece of paper and bring it to me and say miss tell me tell me the word and i would tell them the word and tell them what it meant and then they would go oh see and then they would use it and enjoy it and be able to understand the simplest fables in poetry. It was amazing experiences modeling again is so important and quite often again as we were saying the grandmother was leery of me but she wasn’t leery of her grandchildren.

Children may be leery of the teacher or afraid that they might not fit in but they won’t be leery of their peers so their peers can help teach them vocabulary words as well vocabulary bingo is so much fun to play. Call out the definition and the student has to figure out what word it is and put the marker on the word or vice versa. Flash cards with words and the students have to tell you a definition or make a sentence or using paragraphs but it’s all about being open and no negativity, no put downs. One of the things that we always said in classroom rules put downs are not in our room we don’t say negative things, only positive things and i think that has a lot to do with it or interactions with zoom. Quite often teachers are using their classroom lessons my daughter-in-laws told me that she’s finally getting her kids to open up high schoolers afraid to speak because they didn’t want criticism from their peers. In a classroom setting it didn’t bother them but via zoom they felt intimidated because the other kids were seeing them and hearing them so now she says okay if you want to talk and you’re afraid we’re looking at you,turn off video and talk to us and then turn it back on or write it down and send it to us. A lot of things we’ve got to be creative we have to open our minds and realize that vocabulary is the essence in everything we think do and say so we have to make sure students feel good about their vocabulary.

Lumos Learning: What advice would you give to new teachers regarding vocabulary development?

Bonnie Mcrae: First of all i would say that acceptance an understanding of where each and every child is coming from not only acceptance but encouraging and modeling and show the best trait of a new teacher by tackling and embracing. Don’t be the teacher that goes uh i know we’re on zoom again we’re not back in the room if we were back in the room i would have all these wonderful games for y’all to play but we’re just going to have to do 30 minutes like this. I’ve actually heard teachers say that it’s not good instead say i thought of a way we could play a game on our google classroom, want to try it guys or let’s all go look up different games and activities that we can share with each other, there’s so many free ones out there, let’s look them up and share. The different ways that we can say or draw pictures of a hat, a cap or drawing kids love to be able. I have a four-year-old great-granddaughter and a second-year-old a second grader and they both love to be able to use the drawing element on their google classroom to see what they can draw to share with their teacher. So it’s there are so many you have to be open, don’t be in that box that says we have to do worksheet page 22, we have to take benchmark assessment 7. Instead mix them all up do a variety don’t bore the students. Videos are excellent opportunities and there are many videos out there that are only educational based all kinds of activities for students. But be a part of it don’t just make it an assignment, as a teacher be a part of their learning, ask them what do you want, what are your goals my students had a list of goals that they taped on the inside of their lockers.

When they started fourth grade, i said what do you want out of this year because i don’t know each and every one of you so tell me what you want and then i would have them pick one of those goals to work on each grading period and see if they checked them all off, great for you, make a new list of goals. I had one little girl whose hair in writing was severe she had several back surgeries, she was born with back deficiencies of scoliosis, she she had multiple conditions and she thought my handwriting was beautiful. My handwriting is not beautiful my mother’s was, my mother did the perfect, mine is not beautiful. But she said i want to learn to write in cursive, i want to learn to multiply so for her my principal said, all right bonnie you’re the one who took all these kids and the ace of state tests last year with a group of underachievers you could do it again. And i said i’m not Helen Keller, i am not that good but i’ll do the best i can and one thing my kids will have fun and they will learn because they have to be able to enjoy their learning. End of the school year she wrote i can multiply in parenthesis in cursive writing, she was thrilled, she was my best multiplier, we stood at the door every day at least twice a week. We had flash card races and the other kids didn’t go oh Miss Mccray are we doing that again because they knew what her goal was and they encouraged her. Some students i know could have beat her a couple of times in those flashcard games but they didn’t because they wanted to encourage her so it’s the way you approach it. I paired her up, she read on a second grade level at the highest, i paired her up with my top readers because i would tell them y’all want to take that test and get those extra points or accelerated reader help her and then when you want to sit down don’t take the test by yourself, they took it together. And she was doing well, she could understand it, the vocabulary was coming to her through her peers self-esteem and modeling. That’s the biggie, be there don’t be discouraged, keep your chin up, this is a tough year as every year is a tough year.

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More about Vocabulary

About Ms Bonnie McRae

Ms Bonnie McRae is a retired curriculum director and school leader.

In this informative podcast, Ms Bonnie McRae, shares insights regarding the importance of vocabulary in students’ progress. Improvement in vocabulary helps students express themselves clearly and meaningfully in their spoken communication.