Achieving Improved Vocabulary Skills through Literature-based Instructional Units

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    I am a teacher in an inclusive early childhood classroom at Prairie Children Preschool in Indian Prairie School District # 204 in Aurora, IL.  I teach morning and afternoon sections of preschoolers; each class is composed of approximately 10 children who are considered to be “typically developing” peers.  Nine students are tuition-paying children from our community and 1 is an at-risk student whose experience is paid for by the state of Illinois Pre-K “at-risk” grant. Additionally, children with disabilities are added to the class so that there may be up to 16 children in each section.  Three years ago, the early childhood program made a shift in the programming for students who are “at-risk” of developing learning difficulties and those with identified disabilities.   Initially attending the preschool program 4 days per week in an inclusive setting, these two groups of students started to attend the fifth day (Friday) for a half-day session without their community peers.  Two other inclusive classroom teachers and I, along with our speech pathologist, decided to use this unique situation to provide our neediest students with some specific and focused tiered instruction that would incorporate opportunities for vocabulary development as well as target skill development in the areas of language, math, and fine motor.

    Our Purpose and the Project

    The purpose of the project was to improve student acquisition of essential vocabulary skills and we accomplished this goal by linking assessment information to specific skill-based intentional teaching.  More precisely, we were focused on vocabulary acquisition that was specific to a piece of children’s literature used as a foundation for thematic instructional units. This specific “core” vocabulary was selected by the team from a target word list based on Judy Montgomery’s research related to vocabulary acquisition (Montgomery, 2007). The students participated in pre- and post-tests to assess their mastery of the vocabulary.  We also used the student’s performance on the Picture Naming Fluency task of the Individual Growth and Development Indicators (IGDIs) to monitor progress (Early Childhood Research Institute on Measuring Growth and Development, 2000).
    The program consisted of reading a selected piece of children’s literature for three Fridays in combination with carefully planned literacy, math and fine motor activities that had a specific discrete skill focus in each area.  Literacy skills included narration and story retelling, literal and inferential comprehension, prediction, phonemic awareness skills, sequencing and vocabulary development.  Math skills included matching, sorting, counting, patterning, one-to-one correspondence in counting, numeral recognition, positional and quantity concepts, and using comparative words.  Fine motor activities included the manipulation of tools and objects and eye-hand coordination tasks.

    Instruction was conducted in both large and small group settings in a highly structured classroom.  The large group instruction included reading the book along with activities that targeted vocabulary concepts and incorporated highly visual materials and realia (real life experiences).  Small group instruction was delivered at “stations” that the children rotated through, focusing on the specific target skills related to the curriculum.  Parents were also given a “take-home” sheet each Friday that listed the book name and described the targeted skills that were emphasized that day. A list of the vocabulary words in picture form along with suggested activities that they could do with their child at home was also sent in an effort to build a home-school connection.

    Data Analysis

    After completing several book units, we were able to analyze the data from the vocabulary pre- and post-test to determine impact on individual student growth.  We also examined how this specific intervention impacted student performance on the IGDI’s and their progress on the Creative Curriculum Developmental Continuum Checklist (Dodge, Colker, & Heroman, 2002).    We also were able to look at progress within sub-groups such as three-year-olds, four-year-olds, pre-k at risk, and ELL students.  Our data revealed that overall, our group of three-year-olds from all three classrooms made greater gains in the area of vocabulary acquisition than the three classrooms of four-year-olds.  We also noticed that the four-year-olds attained higher vocabulary naming scores during the pre-test, so the gains appeared smaller.  Data showed that most students easily mastered noun naming, but struggled more with conceptual words.  All of my students made gains on the IGDIs Picture Naming Fluency subtest.  Most significantly, the majority of the students involved in this intervention made gains in vocabulary, especially ELL students.

    The analysis of the data helped us to reflect on our choice of vocabulary words.  We shifted our focus to more conceptual words instead of nouns when selecting core vocabulary for each book.  We implemented even more opportunities for student engagement in “realia” instructional activities that were related to concept words during large group instruction.  For example, for the story The Three Little Pigs, two of the concept words were heavy and light.  Bunches of straw and sticks were brought in along with a brick.  Each student held the items to feel if they were heavy or light.  The items were then placed on a table and a blow dryer was used to see what would happen if we tried to blow these items.  We felt that this strategy was a key to the success of understanding concept words for all students.   Lastly, we developed a more authentic way of testing the students for vocabulary mastery as opposed to just flashing them a picture that was representative of the word, giving the students an opportunity to specifically demonstrate their understanding.

    Reflection and Moving Forward

    This project gave me and my team the opportunity to implement the core fundamentals of RTI: tiered intervention with a narrowed focus and intentional teaching that was matched to students’ needs, a specific data collection process that allowed for monitoring student progress during the intervention, and a data analysis and evaluation process to gauge the students’ responses to the intervention.  It provided our students with interventions that specifically helped them make gains in the area of vocabulary acquisition and overall gains in the domains of math and fine motor.  We continue to refine our project by scaffolding the specific activities within the book units to help student development on targeted skills as well as looking at other areas beside vocabulary that we feel might benefit from more specific data collection and analysis.

    Dodge, D.T., Colker, L.J., & Heroman, C. (2002).  The Creative Curriculum Developmental
        Continuum for Ages 3 – 5.  Washington, DC:  Teaching Strategies, Inc.  
    Early Childhood Research Institute on Measuring Growth and Development.  (2000).  
        Individual Growth and Development Indicators for preschool children.  Available
        online from Center for Early     Education and Development, University of Minnesota,
    Montgomery, J.K. (2007). The Bridge of Vocabulary. Boston, MA: Pearson/AGS.
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