Vocabulary Measurement in PreSchool

Assessing vocabulary learning in early childhood

Jessica L Hoffman

Miami University, USA

William H Teale

University of Illinois at Chicago, USA

Kathleen A Paciga

Columbia College Chicago, USA


There is widespread agreement with in the field of early childhood education that vocabulary is important to literacy achievement and that reading aloud can support vocabulary growth. However, there are unexplored and significant problems with the ways we assess young children’s vocabulary learning from read-alouds. This paper critcally reviews the forms of vocabulary assessment commonly used with young children, examining the benefits and drawbacks of each. ….


Beyond Retelling: Stop-Think-Talk

In Beyond Retelling: Toward Higher Level Thinking and Big Ideas by Cunningham and Smith (2008) Pearson Education, the authors lay out a carefully sequenced approach to reading comprehension

Reasons: What is/are the purposes of the dialogue?

The authors begin by justifying the focus on Higher Order Thinking (more specifically the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy: Evaluation, Analysis, Synthesis and Application). They point of how important those skills are for today’s world, how often they are related to successful reading instruction, and how frequently they are the focus of everyday instruction.

One of their areas of focus relative to “reasons” for their higher order thinking approach is the impact of such an approach on students in high poverty classrooms. Citing two studies from the 1990’s, the note that the teachers with the highest achievement gains did the following:

From the first study by Michael Knapp:

*Maximized opportunities to read

*Integrated reading and writing with other subjects

*Provided opportunities to discuss what was read (emphasis mine)

*Emphasized higher order meaning construction rather than lower order skills

From the second study by Taylor and Pearson (CIERA):

*Had higher pupil engagement

*Provided more small group instruction

*Provided more coaching to help children improve their work recognition

*Communicated more with parents

*Had children engage in more independent reading

*Asked more higher level comprehension questions

Although they support the importance of asking more higher level questions, they note that “leading the children to come up with good answers in much harder (p. 6);” thus the importance of thoughtful planning and carefully scaffolding of instruction. At the end of each section, Cunningham and Smith lay out a multi-step procedure for maximizing student participation and success.

The approach is based on engaging elementary school children in big questions, big ideas and deep thinking that are actualized through focusing on narrative themes like problem solving, courage, friendship, overcoming hardships.

These teachers’ uses several techniques to careful scaffolding is the way in which they help children progress through reading tasks. These might be thought of as interacting “routines” that children learn to follow. That is, they learn what how they are expected to work and communicate during each phase of the lesson.

Routines: Dialogue entails multiple “turns” among participants. What kinds of “turns” are there? How do participants determine whose “turn” it is and what kind of contribution is appropriate? Meaningful? Helpful? How are the routines influenced by Reasons, Rules and Roles?

  1. Simple Formats

They use two simple formats to take children though a single story and across multiple stories: A Concept Chart based on Frayer’s model of vocabulary instruction and a Thinking Theme chart that asks students to address a theme-based Big Question by identifying Events or Actions, determine Why a character asked in a certain way, determining what the character Gets for acting that way and providing support for how the event shows the focus theme.

Roles: Who are the participants in the dialogue and how, in the particular context, are they related to each/one another?

  1.  Reading tasks.

They start with read alouds, engages children in partner reading, reading teams (with a coach and recorder on each team to complete the charts). Further along the line, the teacher creates a “three-ring circle” in which children either read with the teacher, with a partner, or alone. The authors note that their planning is strongly influenced by the “Gradual Release of Responsibility” framework. They move from shared reading, to guided reading, to reading partnerships, to conferring with reading partnerships, and finally to independent reading and literature circles (See Chapter 7)

  1. Multiple examples

The teacher starts by having children draw examples from their own lives and then offers children several examples of the target theme, before they even begin reading. Then children will be focused on identifying examples as they read, stopping at predetermined (sticky notes) places.

  1. Moving from Nonfiction to Fiction  (See Chapter 6)

Rules: Is there a set of “rules” that participants follow. Are the rules implicit or explicit? If implicit, are all of the participants aware of the rules? Do they all agree to the rules?

A hallmark of the Cunningham and Smith model is that children are explicitly taught what the expectations are. They are not simply told what to do; it is described, and practiced and evaluated, with the children as full partners.

Rewards: Can dialogue really achieve the desired/specified

I am stretching this part of the framework to fit my focus on dialogue and reading, but I think the stretch is justified. This approach doesn’t work without paying attention to dialogue. In a sense, the heart of the approach is “stop-think-talk.” For every part of the lessons and the sequences, talk is essential. The talk comes from the children’s experiences before, during, and after reading.   It builds on their prior knowledge and experiences. It is inherent in their evaluation of their tasks. But it also comes from the careful sequencing of instruction. These children know about the kinds of talk, the timing of talk, the importance of talk, and the outcome of “talking” because their teachers have taken on the task of “leading the children to come up with good answers in much harder.” And “talking” is inherently related to higher order thinking.

This book has much to offer elementary teachers. It is well worth investing the time to read and try out the ideas. I would also recommend it to parts as an example of carefully sequenced, explicit instruction in reading comprehension

“My kids talk. What’s the big idea?”

Dialogue and Reading Success: Comprehension Through Conversation

The Subtitle of Comprehension Through Conversation by Maria Nichols (Heineman, 2006) is The Power of Purposeful Talk in the Reading Workshop. Nichols begins her text by reporting on a comment made to a colleague during a staff meeting on “accountable talk.” She says, “I distinctly remember leaning over to a colleague and whispering, “My kids talk. What’s the big idea?” … Years later at a week long Reading and Writing Institute she heard Richard Allington talk about the Six T’s of exemplary teaching, one of which got her full attention: Talk. That started a project of in depth research on talk.”

Her work continued into the spring of the first year at the Professional Development Center. She says: “My first-graders and I had just wrapped up a nonfiction unit of study in reading in which we had immersed ourselves in the discovery of fascinating things in, and thoughts about the real world. As part of the study, focusing on the importance of building an understanding of what’s in a character’s heart by listening to their words and carefully scrutinizing their action. Embedded in these studies, as in all aspect of our learning, was the important of thinking and talking about our thinking as a means of constructing ideas, negotiating meaning, and developing structure for independent thought.” (p. xi)

She goes on to say:

“Constructivist thinking like this does not happen by accident. It is the byproduct of classrooms where children think and talk together to make meaning, work collectively to construct stronger ideas, push back at thinking that doesn’t make sense to them (even the teacher’s), come to expect and anticipate differences of opinion, and do this on such a regular basis that thinking in this way becomes a habit of mind.”…

Based on the central idea of Purposeful Talk, Nichols explores the use of Read Alouds as a tool for helping children “Thinking and Talking About Reading in Increasingly Complex Ways” through units of study.

Although I don’t believe I can do justice to the thoughtfulness, carefulness, and comprehensiveness of Nichols’ work, I’d like to briefly outline her work here in relation to my 5Rs of Dialogue.. This is really a text worth buying, reading and rereading.


Reasons: What is/are the purposes of the dialogue?

Nichols engages children in “Purposeful Talk” in order to prepare them to interact in a meaningful and effective way in the economic, political and learning demands of the larger world. I would characterize this as an “interactive” world demanding higher order thinking and collaborative problem solving.


Rules: Is there a set of “rules” that participants follow. Are the rules implicit or explicit. If implicit, are all of the participants aware of the rules? Do they all agree to the rules?

In Chapter 4, Nichols describes Teaching Conversational Behavior that will apply across tasks, situations and contexts.

^Hearing All Voices: Learning to how to both take and give turns

^Growing ideas

*saying something meaningful: understanding the text or the world through the text

*listening with intent: actually engaging with the ideas

*keeping lines of thinking alive: agreeing, disagreeing, adding on to an idea, clarifying meaning

^Negotiating Meaning: Voicing ideas and pushing back and forth at each other’s thinking; listening with the intent of understanding the reasoning and evidence behind differing idea by allowing them to develop.

These are fairly general rules and will be adapted to the task and contexts in which the talking (and listening) takes place.


Roles: Who are the participants in the dialogue and how, in the particular context, are they related to each/one another?

Nichols outlines 4 roles based on the work of Luke and Freebody: code breaker, text participant (meaning maker), text user (what do I do with the text here and now) and text analyst (what does the text do to me). Her focus is on the roles of participant, user and analyst. It isn’t clear how these three roles function in the context of routines, which reflect reading together and turn taking.


Routines: Dialogue entails multiple “turns” among participants. What kinds of “turns” are there? How do participants determine whose “turn” it is and what kind of contribution is appropriate? meaningful? helpful? How are the routines influenced by Reasons, Rules and Roles?

In the section on Orchestrating the Talk (Conversations), Chapter 5, Nichols focuses on Read Alouds as the starting point in a “Release of Responsibility Model.” (p. 53)   Here is the real strength of Nichols’ approach: knowing when and how to help children move to the next level of conversation. She does this in two ways. She gradually moves children through types of reading conversations, beginning with Read Alouds and then moving to Shared Readings, Guiding Reading, Partnerships and Literature Circles…and only then to Independence. In her effort to be sensitive to the strengths and challenges of all language learners, she thoughtfully plans Macro (stages of interaction) and Micro (types of interaction) progressions, systematically monitoring children’s progress in order to move them to the next more challenging level of interaction/conversation. Although Nichols work doesn’t reflect “routines” in the typical sense of how turns are determined among the readers engaged in the conversations, she does show what kinds of turns there are as children participate in different stages of reading (Read Alouds, Shared Reading, etc.) and engage in a variety of fiction and nonfiction tasks. One of the ways she brings these examples to life is by charting stopping places as the children engage in reading. Her charts show stopping place, reasons for stopping, what talk indicative of meaning-making sounds like and possible scaffolds if the children aren’t constructing strong meaning. (p. 59)

Micro Routines

Here Nichols uses three techniques: focusing on the nature of the reading task, determining where to stop in the reading (to allow for thinking/reflection) , and addressing the differing demands of both fiction and nonfiction.

The reading task.

Nichols takes a grade by grade approach, suggesting what kinds of task might be appropriate at each grade level. For example: “In kindergarten or first grade, a study lasting approximately four to six weeks might focus entirely on understanding characters. When planning studies, I always include an expectation for children’s talk. Once children are thinking about their reading in this way, what should their talk sound like…..”

Where to stop

Here Nichols gives very explicit examples of places in text to stop. She outlines “focus points,” “how readers do this,” and “what the talk might sound like.” Focus points include “tasks” like: getting to know what’s in a character’s heart, noticing changes in characters, and understanding what caused a character to change.

Differences in fiction and nonfiction reading

Here are some examples on nonfiction tasks: reading with a wide-awake mind, making sense of information, asking questions and forming theories, reading for big ideas, differentiating fact and opinion. Again, Nichols shows us how the reader does this and what the talk might sound like.


Rewards: Can dialogue really achieve the desired/specified “reasons” for all of the participants? How do we know?

The End Result (p 102-4) in Nichols’ words:

“Over time, we should see and hear evidence of the cumulative effect of instructional experiences in reading, thinking and talking and opportunities to practice with supports along the Release of Responsibility slide. Our children should be emerging from these experiences not only as stronger meaning makers capable of orchestrating their own conversation and negotiating with others for the purpose of construction meaning but as critically aware.”

“By teaching our children to read, think and talk about their thinking we enable them not only to have purposeful conversations that construct meaning with others, but also to have raging conversations in their own heads, even when thinking alone. In this way, we create self-sustaining , purposefully literate beings who question, build on the thinking of others, pursue more information, seek out and actually listen to other points of view, and in the end, make up their own minds” (P 103

…and..”the ability to take part in an intellectual exchange of ideas the constantly enlightens us, guides us, and helps us continually rethink our physical, social, political, and economic environments.”( P 104)

Bolding of print mine.

Talking Is Learning

Some choices:


Talk and Write

A 5 Minute Investment:  Talking Before Writing (About Nonfiction Text)


New Standards for Speaking and Listening

Laruen Resnick and Catherine Snow, Speaking and Listening for Preschool Through Third Grade

New Standards, 2008, International Reading Association.

In the preface the authors note that speaking and listening are the foundations of reading and writing. They say: “Speaking and listening are to reading and writing what walking is to running.”

And, “The process (of specifying a clear set of expectations for speaking and listening) was an adventure for us, for while researchers and expert teachers know a great deal about children’s language development, no one had translated that knowledge into a clear set of classroom expectations.”   I would add that we are only beginning, after a long period, to pay attention to the importance of speaking and listening to learning.

Resnick and Snow say that there are three important reasons for children to practice and master their native language:

1 Speaking and listening are the foundation skills for reading and writing.

2 Speaking and listening make children smarter

3 Speaking and listening are academic, social, and life skills that are valued in school and in the world.

They go on to describe three kinds of speaking/listening standards, with several subcomponents under each type.


^Talking a lot

^ Talking to one’s self

^Conversing at length on a topic

^Discussing books

2 KINDS OF TALK AND RESULTING GENRES: Children talk for a variety of reasons, or purposes. Among them

^Inform, entertain and persuade others

^Present themselves, their topics, or their points of view to others

^Negotiate or propose relationships with others

^Evaluate people, information, or events

^Think, teach, learn

^Getting things done

^Producing and responding to performances


^Rules of interaction

^Word play and language awareness

^Vocabulary and word choice

Because my current focus is on dialogue, I’ve highlighted those standards that are most directly related to dialogue. In particular, I’m going to focus on only a few: talking a lot, conversing at length on a topic, discussing books, kinds of talk and resulting genres, rules of interaction and vocabulary and word choice. These are the aspects of speaking and listening that support the reasons for talking.

Those standards that are most directly related to dialogue are “kinds of talk and resulting genres” and “rules of interaction.”

RULES: “Beginning in infancy and continuing through the elementary years and beyond, children learn the rules of the game of conversation…..sharing the most widely shared rules of interaction….. It is crucial for teachers to understand that the conversational rules they themselves know and follow are social rules… …children who fail to understand them [the accepted rules] suffer academic and social consequences.” People are expected to take turns, be polite, and learn to address people appropriately depending on whether they are superiors, subordinates or equals….”(p 13)

I would add to these guidelines that the rules to be followed in dialogue are also dependent on context, topic, genre, and purpose. There are numerous studies that address these dimensions, for example: “Talking Like an Historian,” “Talking Their Way into Science,” “Mathematical Discourse,” and “Collaborative Conversations.”

A set of widely accepted general “rules” for conversation was proposed by Grice: Conversation should be informative, true, relevant and clear.

REASONS. R and S have outlined an inclusive set of reasons for dialogue. They refer to 4 specific genres: narrative, explaining and seeking information, getting things done, and producing and responding to performance. And under each of these categories they list several variations. For example, under narrative, they list: recounting two or more events, recounting knowledge gained through observation, experience, or text, orienting the listener by giving some setting information.

In the psycholinguistic literature, Halliday’s list of “functions of language” is often referenced as a frame of reference for “reasons” to speak/listen. His list includes 7 categories: instrumental, regulatory, interactional, personal, imaginative heuristic, informative.

REWARDS. If Resnick and Snow are correct, then the rewards for becoming proficient at speaking and listening should include being able to read and write, being smart, and succeeding in school and life. As well, they should be successful in the 4 domains of narrative, explain and seeking information, getting things done, and producing and responding to performance. How these achievements are demonstrated and assessed is the essence of the Resnick and Snow book.

ROLES. R AND S described roles as “superiors, subordinates and equals.” That classification is both basic and simple. The roles are not necessarily specific to teacher/student or adult/child. If we think about roles in terms of context and reason, the role a child plays in one context may be quite different from the role in another context; in some instances the child may become the teacher. In some instances, a child may be, if not the superior, at least the expert depending on the topic. Certainly children take on a variety of roles with one another. Although these standards are only outlined until grade 3, we do want children to adopt a variety of roles as they grow older. One of the things that will impact the roles students play will be the “routine” that are modeled and used in the classroom.

ROUTINES. In the list of standards there are several that suggest that children will need to learn a lot of different speaking/listening routines (and roles): talks a lot, converses at length about a topic, discusses books and chooses words carefully. Here are some examples of what this looks like at the preschool and second/third grade levels. We expect young children to learn a great deal about speaking and listening in a short time.

Talks a lot.

Preschool 2nd and 3rd Grade
Talk daily for various purpose Talk about what they think, read, or experience
Engage in play using talk to enact or extend a story line Explain or speak from another’s perspective
Express ideas, feelings, and needs
Listens and responds to direct questions
Ask questions
Talks and listens in small groups Talk in front of groups on a regular basis

Talk in small groups to collaborate on a project…to facilitate work on a task

Share and talk daily about their own experiences, products, or writing. Talk about ideas or information gained from sources beyond personal experiences

Solicit and provide feedback daily about writing.

Converse at length about a topic

Preschool 2nd and 3rd Grade
Initiate and sustain a conversation with comments or questions through at least 4 exchanges Initiate and sustain a conversation with eight or more lengthy exchanges
Recognize the topic of conversation and make topic-relevant responses Initiate topics within conversations that are in progress
Recognize invitation to converse vs questions intended to elicit a brief response Sustain conversation by extending others’ contribution
Listen to others and avoid talking over Express and solicit opinions
Repair and revert to the topic when necessary

Discusses books

Preschool 2nd and 3rd Grade
Poses and answers specific qs about the text End of 3rd grade has 19 items in this category. Noting just a few
Recites familiar refrains from books that have been heard several times Note and talk about author’s craft
Identify a favorite book and tell why they like it Refer to knowledge gained during discussion
Use information that is accurate, accessible, and relevant
State own ideas with greater clarity when not comprehended
Ask other students qs that require then to support their claim;
Indicate their own/others’ ideas need further support
Compare texts
Capture meaning from figurative language
Analyze the causes, motivations, sequences, and results of events
Use the structure of information texts to retrieve information
Understand concepts and their relationships
Use reasoning and information from within and outside the text to examine arguments.

Chooses words carefully

Preschool 2nd and 3rd Grade
11 items. Some of them 11 items
Sorts relationships among words in knowledge domain Builds word maps
Adds new domains from subjects and topics the are studying Uses specialized vocabulary (academic language)
Learns new words daily in conversation Provides definitions of words
Shows a general interest in words an word meanings, asking adults what a word means or offering definitions Demonstrates flexibility by choosing from word options
Uses some abstract words and understands that these words differ from concrete things Develops a basic awareness of meaningful word parts
Uses verbs referring to cognition, communication, and emotions. Uses metaphor language
Understands antonyms, synonyms, homonyms, homographs and homophones

Can we simply teach each of these elements of speaking/listening-dialogue in sequence or must we figure out how to integrate them? How do we start at a simple level and scaffold the child to the next level? How do we know where a child is at any point in his or her development of language skills?


7 Questions About Learning to Read: Question 2–Why is learning to read important?

Why is reading and learning to read so important?  Why is there a reading gap?  Why aren’t some kids successful readers by 3rd grade?

*I have had lots of opportunity to teach and observe teachers working with struggling readers to know that it is possible for these kids to become successful readers.  When we know the student and the learning context, know why the learning is breaking down (through careful observation, collaborative thinking and effort, and formative assessment), know which instructional strategies and materials to use, engage the student is a learning partnership, and schedule enough time to work…..we can do it.

*There is significant research out there to document the achievement gap and the reasons for the achievement gap—for example:


See Reid Lyon’s larger body of work:  http://www.childrenofthecode.org/interviews/lyon.htm

See the work of William Teale, expert on early literacy and the achievement gap


*There are screening and formative assessment tools to keep tract of children’s early literacy progress:  for example

Early LiteracyAssessment Systems:  Essential Elements

by Jacqueline Jones

Copies can also be downloaded from:  www.ets.org/research/pic

Copyright © 2003 by EducationalTesting Service.

Early Reading Assessment: A Guiding Tool for Instruction (Reading Rockets)


And so?  So, how do we make sure we are tracking children’s language/literacy/learning progress from age 2 to grade 2?  Whose responsibility is it?  How do we do it?

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