Teaching kindergarteners the vocabulary of school

Match the pictures!”

Sort the blocks!”

Select your story!”

To you and me, these may seem like simple directions, typically heard in a kindergarten classroom. But to a new kindergartener, they may not be so simple. These directions are full of instructional verbs, those “used during instruction for the purpose of directing student engagement with academic content and concepts.” When children enter school, they are bombarded with these verbs as teachers give explanations, ask questions, and provide instructions. If kids don’t understand what teachers are asking them to do, it can affect their engagement, their learning, and their success. We think a lot about the need for “Tier 2” academic words for older students, but they matter for the youngest students too!

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The authors of this study recognized the importance of instructional verbs and wanted to see if the verbs could be learned during interactive shared reading experiences. Five kindergarten teachers selected 12 verbs that they believed children should know by the end of the kindergarten school year: identify, predict, match, sort, create, select, illustrate, locate, describe, discuss, respond, and demonstrate. The authors created four stories, each written to teach three of these instructional verbs. They recruited 122 pre-K students from a summer program and randomly assigned them to a “book-reading group” or a no-intervention, “business-as-usual” control group. The book-reading group participated in interactive shared reading experiences (including explicit instruction, word definitions, adult questioning) during a 3-week summer session.

So, who learned what?

  • After intervention, the book-reading group knew significantly more verbs than the control group. They maintained this advantage when school started two months later.
  • By the spring, there was no difference between the groups.
  • Both groups only knew about half of the 12 words by the end of the year.

What does this tell us? It looks like the book-reading kids started ahead, while the control group learned slowly over the course of the year. Basically, three weeks of direction instruction gave the book-reading kids the equivalent of a whole year’s incidental learning. But, neither of these approaches brought students to where teachers thought they should be. Is more direct teaching needed? Or are teachers’ expectations unrealistic? In the age of Common Core, the second question could be moot…

The take-away? Consider incorporating ongoing direct teaching of instructional verbs into your repertoire. If you routinely work with pre-kindergarten students, especially ones at risk of starting behind their peers, it may be worth collaborating with kindergarten teachers and creating your own stories to be used year after year, since this appears to be an effective teaching tool. You could also counsel teachers to raise their awareness of the instructional verbs they use and give them strategies to promote student understanding.

Lowman, J., Stone, L. T., & Guo, J. (2018). Effects of interactive book reading for increasing children’s knowledge of instructional verbs. Communication Disorders Quarterly, 1-13. doi:10.1177/1525740117745639.