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Shanahan on Literacy

Timothy Shanahan

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy.

Sight Vocabulary for Preschool

April 26, 2017

Teacher question:

I am preschool teacher and I would like to know how I can implement a sight word program with 4 year old students. I have tried my best to implement at least three but I feel my strategies are not working. I am trying to do a program to help preschoolers to be ready when they go to kindergarten.

 Shanahan's response:

My dear, many of my colleagues, would be wearily frowning at you with disdain for this question. And, regular readers here, knowing my sharp tongue, too, may be anticipating something akin to a public flogging.

But let me play against type a bit… because, although I cannot make a strong research case for what you want to do, I think I can make a reasonable case for it.

First, the cautions: Research is very clear about the benefits of teaching letter names, phonological awareness, phonics, and concepts of print to preschoolers (see Report of the National Early Literacy Panel). Why would you go after sight vocabulary when so much good could be accomplished working on the initial mastery of those things? Make sure that your kids are on a first-name basis with letters, make sure they can hear the sounds of language independent of meaning, and make sure they are grasping what we do with print and how it works (e.g., directionality).

Second, facility with oral language is important, too. Build your children’s language. Expose them to science, social studies, math, and art concepts, and talk to them about those things. Get them to talk to you and to each other. Read to them, too, and talk with them about that as well. Make sure that what you read to them is funny, touching, clever — but above all — rich with meaning, exposing them to a vast array of ideas. That won’t make a big difference in beginning literacy, but over time, it will enable and support your children’s reading comprehension. (I would strongly encourage you to look at the Resources section of my site — particularly the section on Beginning Literacy).

None of that advice answers your question, however. Those are both aspects of early literacy teaching that make a big difference in kid’s learning, and that you need to do.

So, if you want to work on sight vocabulary instead of those kinds of things … then I’m going give you a time out.  However, if you want to work on sight vocabulary … in addition to those essentials, then I’m with you. To be fair, there is not strong research on building sight vocabulary in preschoolers, but there is with regard to beginning readers generally so I feel safe enough encouraging you on.

As a reading teacher, and parent who taught his daughters to read, I would encourage you to start with something called the language experience approach (LEA). It is a wonderful way to get kids started on reading — and one outcome can be the development of a collection of words that children may know by sight.

Start with a shared experience. This could be as simple as some object that children can discuss with you. It might be a toy or model (preferably something that will intrigue the children and that will generate a lot of discussion and questions — and it helps if they can handle it themselves — so leave the fragile stuff home). I often started with a little puffer fish or starfish that I had purchased on a vacation.                

However, this shared experience could be something more involving than that. Cooking something, mixing different colors of paints, feeding the class gerbil, building a terrarium, playing a musical instrument are all classroom experiences that can be the basis of LEA. (And, field trips — including within school field trips, like a trip to the nurse’s office or to observe the custodian planting the new shrubs — can work as well).

In any event, these shared experiences should both increase children’s knowledge of the world, while giving them lots of opportunity for discussion with you that will help them to learn language relevant to that experience.

Once an experience has taken place along with the associated discussion, then it gets to become the basis for a language-experience story.  Instigate the children to tell you things about the object/event/experience in their own words. Initially, I’d do this with the whole class, depending heavily on your most verbal youngsters. That shows everyone what is expected, and as time goes on you can do small group stories or even individual ones (and, yes, even a single sentence is sufficient).

If kids just name something, “volcano,” try to help them stretch that into a sentence. “Yes, Mary, we did make a volcano. What do you want to say about it?” or “Let’s try to say something about the volcano, like someone would write in a book,” or “What did we do with the volcano?” If they are really stuck, just craft a sentence from what they tell you (“We made a volcano.”) — over time this will get better. 

After printing each sentence, credit the contribution … “We made a volcano,” said Mary. “It caught fire,” said Jack. Say each word as you write it, and reread each sentence once it is written. When the whole article has been dictated — I’d limit the early ones to 3-5 sentences — then reread the whole thing more than once; involving children in the readings — getting them to try to “read” the piece with you as you read and point to the words.

The next day bring the chart out again. Read it to them again and have them do some more choral reading.  Then ask them for some help. Ask if anyone thinks they can find the word, “volcano”… or “said” or “DeAndre’s name,” etc. They love to get up and point to these words.

“Who knows any of the other words?” They’ll want to try and they will likely need some help. Perhaps rereading a sentence for them if they get lost. You can provide clues if necessary … “the word is in the second line or it begins with a d, can you find a d.”

On day three, bring in a copy of the story for everyone. These can easily be Xeroxed on half sheets to save paper. The children can illustrate these, but, again, with lots of rereading. I would also ask the children to underline any of the words that they think they can read. Some might not mark any words at all and some might underline everything.

I then go to each child and I point at words — jumping around but relying on the underlinings — asking them what that word is. If any child is able to read any of the words, I record it on a small card (typically a quarter of an index card), and we save those cards for the children. It can help to put initials on the backs so they don’t get mixed up. Some teachers make a big deal out of making word banks, but something as simple as a sandwich bag with a child’s name is a sufficient container.

Review those cards again and again. Some teachers spend the first 5 minutes of the day with that kind of review. If a child forgets a word, it can easily be removed from the bank (this isn’t a punishment—the idea is simply that the bag is for words that you really know).

Over time, with more stories, the word banks should grow. However, the less the child knows about letters and sounds, the slower the banks will expand (and the more often you’ll take away forgotten words).

During the preschool years it is a good idea to teach kids to print their names…and it can be good to have them trying to copy and eventually write their favorite words (from their banks)— perhaps in different colors (who has a read “volcano,” who has a blue “the”). Orally spelling these memorized words makes sense, too. As does playing games or doing activities with these words, such as showing children two words and having them guess which one is volcano (make sure the choices are very different in preschool).

The “stories” that are the basis of their sight vocabulary can be expanded to include some texts that they “know”… like familiar stories, chants, poems, and songs (e.g., Brown Bear, Brown Bear; Mary Had a Little Lamb; Happy Birthday).  These are terrific because, since they know these by ear, they are great texts for finger-point reading (that is, the kids try to recite the text while pointing to the appropriate sets of letters). These kinds of activities help the children to develop a sense of how print works — including where to start reading on a page, the difference between words, syllables, and letters, what to do at the end of a line of print, or what to do with those spaces between words.

I’m recommending several key things:

  1. Get kids to memorize words through repetition, but without a lot of a drill and practice. I’m making sure children see these words over and over again, and I’m getting them to pay attention to the letters; but it is meaningful repetition and meaningful analysis.
  2. Build word knowledge within a language rich and content rich environment. We don’t start with words, we start with experiences, which are translated into language, and which are eventually transcribed and read as words.
  3. Don’t worry too much if kids aren’t learning a lot of words, or if they are forgetting them along the way. What you are doing is building word familiarity, and helping the children to look at words carefully—particularly looking at the letters. If they manage to remember some words, then all the better. I would expect kids to learn 5-20 words in preschool—and some might not grasp any at all.
  4. Keep these lessons positive. Working with words in these ways is fun and it should stay fun. If you get anxious that they aren’t learning words quickly or are learning words and then forgetting them, you may pressure them unnecessarily and unproductively. (The ancient Greek teachers wrote letters and words in honey to show their students the sweetness of literacy.) As children become more adept with letters and sounds, their memory for words will improve as if by magic.
  5. Keep these lessons short. You’ll likely never work with the words themselves for more than 5 minutes at a time. The shared experiences, dictation/transcription, and re-readings can take as much time as you are able to hold the children’s interest—but those aren’t just about sight words. Several short reviews of words throughout a day is more productive than one long review.

Finally, the teaching of sight words is not a reading program. But working with words is fun for kids and can help provide some supports for the rest of a good literacy program. Make sure that preschool kids are getting daily work with letters and sounds (and words); that they are working on listening comprehension — particularly listening to stories and other texts; that they are engaged in some of the finger point reading and choral reading activities described here (the roots of fluency); and I would also encourage them to try to write their own stories and books, too.     

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"Books make great gifts because they have whole worlds inside of them. " — Neil Gaiman