Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Using Technology to Develop Vocabulary & Reading

In a recent edition of the International Reading Association journal 'The Reading Teacher', Bridget Dalton and Dana Grisham discuss the merits of electronic strategies that can be used to increase children's vocabularies. They call these strategies 'eVoc' strategies (i.e. electronic vocabulary strategies)

How important is vocabulary?

The short answer is, very! We know that in spite of the rise of the visual medium that words are still the primary basis of language, communication and learning. Literacy research studies have consistently shown the significant relationship between knowledge of vocabulary and reading and writing ability. Pearson, Hiebert & Kamil (2007) showed that there is a very high positive correlation (0.6 to 0.8) between vocabulary and reading comprehension. This confirms consistent findings that span more than 30 years (see for example Anderson, R. C., & Freebody, P., 1985).

While we know children learn much of their vocabulary through experience of spoken and written language, it also grows as a result of good instruction. There is wide support within the research literature for a varied approach to vocabulary instruction, including:
  • Language experience 
  • Encouragement of wide reading 
  • Explicit teaching of words
  • The promotion of active interest in words as a natural part of learning
Some key eVoc strategies

Dalton & Grisham in their excellent article suggest 10 strategies that relate primarily to the third and fourth approaches. I will share just 5 strategies, which I have modified for use in primary classrooms based on the examples provided.

1. Tools for displaying relationships between vocabulary and text meaning

The use of graphic organizers and visual displays has proven helpful in expanding vocabulary as well as comprehension, because they help to show the relationship between words and concepts. An example of this strategy is the creative use of 'Word Clouds'. Using the free application 'Wordle' you are able to create word arrays that display the frequency of words in any text. This can then be used to enhance discussion of the text as students speculate what the word cloud might tell you about key themes, dominant ideas, the relationship between ideas, the central purpose of the text, the meaning of the text and so on.

The Word Cloud above is one that I prepared by taking a Wikipedia description of 'Rock Lobster' and inserting it into Wordle. The display shows the dominance of key words and concepts and their relationship to one another. This display makes it pretty clear that we are not discussing crustaceans but rather the first hit song performed by the rock band the B-52s in 1978. A display like the above based on a relevant passage can be used for intensive discussion of the text, developing and reinforcing vocabulary while increasing text comprehension.

2. Using TrackStar to create a shared research 'field trip' for your class



TrackStar is a free online application similar in many ways to WebQuest. It allows the teacher to identify a topic and collect a series of relevant websites or online sources that can then be shared with the class for individual, group or class use. It also allows teachers to choose previously developed online lessons that are referred to as 'tracks'.  The example below is for a topic on Ancient Civilizations and features 4 key sites for children aged 5-9 years. The tracks can be used in varied ways. An ideal format is to use a track in association with a Smart Board for group or class work. Students can be guided through the research process (a 'field trip') and can be asked to record observations, key words or phrases, new learning and so on. The process builds vocabulary as students engage in writing, reading, discussion and shared learning,

3. Using Online Reference Tools

A variety of online reference tools can also help vocabulary and reading development. Dalton and Grisham suggest the use of several tools. One of them is the Visual Thesaurus. The Visual Thesaurus is an interactive dictionary and thesaurus that enables the teacher or child to create word maps elaborate meanings and show relationships to other words. The tool allows you to enter a single word, which is then represented as a visual display web of related vocabulary. The tool can be used to stimulate discussion in relation to a topic as part of the research process in English, social studies, science, history and so on. It can also be used as a tool for writing and reading individually or in groups.

Another example is the 'Back in School' web page of the Dictionary.com site that offers a means to find words and then represent them in varied ways as well as offering some varied strategies to reinforce their meaning. This can include hearing the word spoken, reading word definitions and meanings, creating lists of words, sharing words using social media like Facebook and Twitter, playing games and so on.

Above: 'Back in School' site from Dictionary.com

4. Using Language Translation Devices

There are a variety of language translation devices available for computer and tablet use. One of my favourite tools is the free iTranslate for iPad. But if you don't have access to an iPad there are many other online tools that allow you to input English language text and automatically translate it to a variety of other languages. These also allow the child to type in foreign words for instant translation to English. Google Translate is an obvious and easy choice that once again allows you to input language for instant translation.  Yahoo's Babelfish also offers similar functions.

What I like about the translation tools is that as children experiment and explore how text is translated into other languages, they learn how many words are borrowed from other languages, they learn more about derivations, and it offers a way to discuss the subtle changes in meaning as words move from one language into another. This word play is helpful for vocabulary learning. These tools also offer the benefit of stimulating a desire to learn other languages, which we know can have benefit for learning a first language.

5. Using Presentation Tools Like Powerpoint

Another helpful strategy is to capitalize on multimodality to reinforce learning of vocabulary, reading comprehension, writing and learning. Dalton and Proctor (2007) have shown that there are benefits to vocabulary learning if children experience the vocabulary in varied ways. For example, understanding a word by writing it, reading and developing a definition, listening to it, viewing graphic displays, creating captions for pictures, completing word maps etc. Dalton and Grisham suggest using PowerPoint to apply some of these options to the learning of vocabulary. The example opposite is a very simple template than can be used by individual students or can be built up as part of group activities. This example requires just the word, a meaning which students write (or even look up in a dictionary), and images to illustrate the word meaning. There are more complex versions that can be used including the addition of a pronunciation option. They could also have a section for synonyms, opposites, word categories and perhaps even hyperlinks to sites that elaborate on the vocabulary that has been discussed.

Once again this is an ideal group activity for use with Smart Boards. Electronic whiteboards allow you to access the Internet, use existing software and tools to manipulate text, image and sound. It is an exciting way to allow children to use multimodal strategies to acquire deeper understanding of vocabulary and reading comprehension. The video below is a good introduction to some of the ways we can use Smart Boards, including ideas for developing vocabulary and conceptual knowledge.


Summing up

While children develop vocabulary naturally as part of their language experiences there is a place for instruction. My suggestion is that such instruction should adhere to a few basic principals:
Vary the ways in which vocabulary is introduced and discussed
Try always to deal with vocabulary within authentic texts that are being used to learn content not just words
Stress meaning and use, not testing and learning isolated words
Utilize individual, group and class learning contexts but don't over-use class-based instruction
Make good use multimodal methods as much as possible

Related Posts

See my previous post on 'Advance Organizers' HERE 
'The Language Experience Approach' (LEA) HERE
'Rethinking Language & Learning' HERE
'English, the Inventive Language' HERE

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