Why Kindergarten Vocabulary Activities and Instruction Are Important
What is the best way to help students learn not only new words and build students vocabulary? How do we dive deeper into descriptive words and glean the meaning of the words students encounter? How do we go beyond just a list of words, word of the week, or a simple word bank? In this article, I will share the research on how to build students’ background knowledge around unknown words in fun ways.
Research on Vocabulary and Language Development
First, let’s talk about the importance of explicit vocabulary instruction in kindergarten, first grade, and beyond. Here is the science behind vocabulary and comprehension.
Reading comprehension starts with listening comprehension.
Mark Seidenberg is a researcher and professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is a cognitive scientist, neuroscientist, and psycholinguist who has studied language, reading, and dyslexia for over 30 years. Dr. Seidenberg tells us that reading comprehension is essentially taking the words on the paper and (even in silent reading) then listening to them. So at the risk of being annoying, reading comprehension starts with listening comprehension.
What happens when a child’s vocabulary impedes their ability to comprehend what they hear? Some children enter school with a sophisticated and rich vocabulary, while many others have a very rudimentary vocabulary. When a young student’s vocabulary is limited, these are the children we worry about. These are the students that keep us up at night.
Scarborough’s Rope and Vocabulary
What is the Scarborough Rope? Scarborough’s Rope shows how learning to read is like a complex rope. It’s made up of different parts – the lower and upper strands. When all these parts come together, they make you a strong and skilled reader who can read fluently and comprehend well. As you can see, vocabulary is front and center! As we know, if a strand is missing from a rope, it becomes weak. Clearly, a robust vocabulary is essential for reading.
Vocabulary and English Language Learners
Learning new words is essential for students learning English or English Language Learners. Think about it: Young children who grew up speaking English know about 5,000 words when they start school. But students acquiring English might have a vast vocabulary in their first language and very little in English. And it doesn’t stop there – while English speakers keep picking up new words, students learning English have the extra challenge of building that basic vocabulary and then catching up to the rest.
You might think, “My new-to-English student is chatting with friends. He has learned English really quickly!” But hold up, there’s a big gap between chit-chat English and school-level English. It takes time to build children’s vocabulary, and a primary teacher can aid this process through various vocab activities. Some of these activities are listed below.
Group Activities for New Vocabulary Words
As you look at the picture of our vocabulary graphic organizer below, notice that it includes not just interesting words but some common words as well. During our lesson plans, we added student-friendly definitions and related words (synonyms and antonyms). This vocabulary activity expands the vocabulary skills of our kindergarten students exponentially. Looking at the word “packed,” for example. This word is not really considered a Tier 2 vocabulary word. However, our instructional routine of looking at similar words and words that mean the opposite means we added 11 additional words.
We encourage students to use these new words and related words (or the synonyms/antonyms). We fill in a bubble as students attempt to incorporate these new vocabulary words into their language. This is a great way to make these words stick! So if a student comes in from the playground and says, “Mrs. Wills, I was anxious when it was my turn to kick the ball, but I did it anyway!” We fill in a bubble! Students have a great time looking for ways to use these words.
This part of our vocabulary curriculum is placed on the bulletin board. This is one of the effective ways to look back at the weeks of vocabulary instruction we have completed. Each chart paper holds 4 weeks of vocabulary work. I stack the charts so we can easily refer to previous new words we have studied.
Vocabulary Activities to Build Listening Comprehension in Kindergarten
Teaching vocabulary is not always something we think about at the primary grade level. But as you can see, research supports diving into word meanings when students are beginning readers. Students with greater word knowledge in early elementary will have more success with reading comprehension in the older grades. We know students increase their vocabulary as they are exposed to new words. But which words are appropriate for primary learners? Let’s look at the picture books we read to them!
Vocabulary Words for Kindergarten
According to the National Reading Panel, long-lasting vocabulary learning occurs when students see vocabulary in authentic texts, compared to isolated vocabulary drills. So with that in mind, we updated our vocabulary portion of the Engaging Readers units to better support vocabulary instruction in the classroom. Woohoo!
Primary teachers will find a whole collection of vocabulary words they can incorporate into their classroom from the short stories we read!
Quick and Easy Vocabulary Activities for Kindergarten
#1 Read Aloud Vocabulary Activities
Each Engaging Reader’s text includes plans for explicit instruction for two vocabulary words. Each book contains these graphic organizers with the vocabulary words added. Then we provided a blank space for you to add the different meanings. Of course, we have provided instructions and lesson guides, but you don’t need to use the words we suggested. If you have a similar word you wish to add, that works as well.
Throughout the week, students study, and we encourage students to use these new words in everyday conversations.
We keep multiple words posted as a reminder for the teacher to use these words as well. Modeling the use of a new vocabulary word is so important. Young children have so much fun pointing out, “Hey, you said ‘muttered’!”
Vocabulary Learning Through Direct Instruction
Research states that students remember words when they can connect the word’s meaning to their prior knowledge. This is a type of active processing and occurs when students are exposed to words in a variety of ways. For example:
- explicitly taught the meaning of a word
- identify examples and non-examples of the word
- create sentences that contain the new word
- create scenarios or stories in which they use the word
- produce antonyms and synonyms for the word
As you can see, we are not just looking at the word arrange in this example. Some words might be familiar to students’ everyday language, but others may be new.
Additionally, we may also point out multiple-meaning words like cobbler. A cobbler is someone who mends shoes and a delicious dessert made with fruit. You could even show students a picture of these words. A quick Google search is an easy way to do that. Now I want a cobbler.
Beyond the Dictionary Vocabulary Activities
For each vocabulary word, students contextualize the word by responding to a prompt. Here is an example of how younger children can add a new vocabulary word to their notebooks in meaningful ways. Drawing pictures is perfect for early learners. You could also use these student illustrations as picture cards to add to your anchor charts.
Having whole-group discussions also solidifies the learning of new vocabulary words because students are participating in their own learning. Students turn and talk to their partners to help strengthen their oral language. You can add new words to sentence strips as well.
More Vocabulary Practice Activities
Throughout the week, students practice the vocabulary words. The activities vary from book to book!
These next three are examples of response pages from a first-grade and second-grade classroom (yes, our Engaging Readers are differentiated to reach children of all ages). These are also placed in each student’s vocabulary notebook. This type of activity could also extend to your content areas. The power of words is endless.
As you can see, students have different ways of creating these word maps.
Shades of Meaning asks students to place the word’s meaning by the strongest to weakest. For example: hysterical is a stronger reaction than uneasy.
Kindergarten Vocabulary Activities
These examples have given you some ideas on how to teach vocabulary in context to your students. These vocabulary strategies are great to use not just with your read-aloud but as you read and engage in other subject areas. Some teachers add vocabulary words to your word walls. SIDENOTE: We have transitioned to sound walls for our high-frequency words.
All the resources you need to teach vocabulary through authentic texts are available in our Engaging Readers units!
As you can see, these are more than just kindergarten vocabulary resources. These are perfect for first-grade and second-grade!
Check these “done for you” lesson activities.
- Read Aloud Lessons for the Entire Year, Reading and Phonics Curriculum Set 1 (Best for Kindergarten)
- Read Aloud Lessons for the Entire Year, Reading and Phonics Curriculum Set 2 (Best for 1st grade)
- Read Aloud Lessons for the Entire Year, Reading and Phonics Curriculum Set 3 (Best for 2nd grade)
Additional Vocabulary Activities
In addition to class discussions around the words found in the books we read, here are a few other vocabulary activities you can try with your students.
#2 Blending Sounds Vocabulary Words
Remember, as you are blending sounds during your Science of Reading lessons, keep an eye out for words that have less familiar meanings.
Here are just a few CVC words you could unpack for students:
#3 Listening Center Activities
Students can be more exposed to additional words by incorporating a listening center in your classroom center rotations! You may have some great resources on hand for this already, but if you need more, you can check out these blog posts:
#4 Flocabulary Videos for Brain Breaks
Flocabulary videos are fun and engaging. You can watch the videos with your class several times and then discuss some tier 1 and tier 2 vocabulary words. You can sign up for a free trial to assign the songs to students or use the teacher resources. Groups of vocabulary songs are arranged by grade level, so you will find something for kindergarten, first grade, and every other grade level.
#5 Play a Game!
Once you have taught the word, play some word games! Here are a few terrific ways to add some fun!
#6 Riddle of the Day
Students will use the riddle clues to guess the different words. This is a great activity to use as a morning meeting task or bell ringer. As a kindergarten teacher, you may need to read the riddle to your young students. Once students have guessed the riddle solution, you can discuss the clues found in the riddle with the whole class.
Learn more about the riddle of the day by clicking:
#7 Guess My Word
Create a picture card or use one a student has made. Put the cards in a box or bag. Pull the card out and give clues to the meaning. This can be done in a whole group or in small groups. It is a perfect game if you have a time limit. For example, you have 3 minutes before it is time to go to lunch. Keep adding to the box so students are reviewing previously taught vocabulary words. Using synonyms or antonyms as clues is a great way to help grow their vocabulary exposure.
#8 PBS Kids Vocabulary Games
PBS Kids has some fun vocabulary games to add to a computer center activity!
#9 Adapt these English Language Learner Games!
This video contains some simple ideas that would make the best vocabulary games. Remember, these examples are for students who are learning the English language. Still, you can easily swap out the simple cards in this example for the vocabulary images you have collected. These look like a blast, and this teacher has just as much fun! I love how he incorporated physical activity!
#10 I Spy
This is a great game when you have a few moments (too early for recess or not enough time to engage in a new activity), you can play I Spy. This was my son’s favorite game, and elementary students love it as well! Here is how to play:
- spot an object in the classroom
- describe the object – it is small and red. It rattles when I shake it.
- To be sure students are participating, have students turn and talk about what they think it might be.
- Then select a student to be the “spy” next. You may need to support younger students with the clues.11 And… Action!
This is another quick game you can squeeze into those few moments
- Select an animal, object, or person – For example, a horse
- Ask students to think of something that a horse does (a horse gallops, a horse trots, a horse jumps, a horse races…).
- Have students turn to their partner to discuss the share with the whole class.
Charades are a fun way to get kids moving. Like the previous game, charades are fun when you have a few spare moments. Take some of the words you have taught during your read-aloud and use these focus words in charades! For younger students, review 10-12 words first, then ask students to act them out for each other.
#13 Odd Man Out
Using some of your previous vocabulary lessons from your read-aloud, list a few words orally, “Which of these words do not belong: arrange, organize, scatter?”
How to make vocabulary learning permanent
Once your students learn a word, that’s just the beginning. They might forget if they don’t keep using or hearing it. That’s why practice really matters. Get your little ones to keep using the words they’ve learned, and throw in some fun new ones too. Make your word activities intentional. By using the old and new words, you’ll help the words stick and give your kids the confidence to use them creatively.
Plan your year with our updated curriculum map! Click here: