Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Collecting Words: Vocabulary Building the Natural Way

There are a lot of vocabulary building ideas and curricula floating around the homeschool world. I've seen some of them, and even picked up a workbook for free now and again, though I don't think I've actually used one.

A couple of years ago I took a deep breath and decided that for our learning environment, it made the most sense to weave vocabulary building into the fabric of what we're already doing. Because we read. A LOT. That doesn't mean that one day I might not yet introduce a more systematic or formal approach. It also doesn't mean that I'm not intentionally fostering a love of words and a richer vocabulary. It just means that I'm trying to find a way to foster that naturally, instead of sitting my child down in front of a workbook where she has to use certain words in sentences or memorize definitions.

A lot of vocabulary is picked up by osmosis. If you read a lot, and come across certain words enough times, you will eventually pick up on their meaning. This is yet another endorsement, by the way, for encouraging re-reading. There are multiple benefits involved in revisiting a story again and again, and enhancing vocabulary is just one of them, but it's a good one.

Kids are natural collectors. They love to collect all sorts of things: cards, coins, stamps, action figures, dolls, rocks, shells. For some people, that love of collecting grows with them into adulthood. Grown-ups collect all sorts of things too, including sometimes the same things they started collecting as children. In my life, I've been particularly passionate (in different seasons) about certain collections: baseball cards, books, and small bits of green glass have been three of the biggies for me.

It dawned one me one day, a number of years ago, that I had always been a word collector. It was one reason I kept a journal. Not just to write down memories, thoughts, and feelings, or to play with bits of poems and stories, but to actually collect words. I kept lists of them. I still do. One day I came across a book called poemcrazy that inspired me to begin collecting words in even more physical ways. I started cutting words I liked from magazines and newspapers. I kept them in small jars and boxes, often along with small scraps of pictures. I still do. I went to an office supply store and bought a big roll of tickets, the "admit one" tickets you might sell at a play or movie. I started pasting words onto tickets. I called these word tickets "tickets to the imagination" and I started using them on those rare but wonderful occasions when someone would ask me to lead a writing workshop.

So you see why I began to realize a couple of years ago why vocabulary building could be a natural thing to build into our learning time. Put together my love of collecting words, our family's love of reading, and a child's natural curiosity and propensity to collect -- and you've got the potential blocks for a towering vocabulary.

This year I made the sweet girl a word book. You could easily create this from any notebook or just from stapling together notebook paper. I decided it would be fun to make it as homemade as possible, so I pulled together a little notebook based on a template I found over at Donna Young's website (my favorite free printables site). The lined pages made a neat little notebook and she even provided a cover with the title "My Word Book" in flowing script. I went hunting and found an alphabet in lovely, fancy scripts. I cut out each letter and pasted them, in order, on the notebook pages, leaving extra room for the letters I thought might get used most often. At the beginning of the school year, I gave it to the sweet girl and showed her that we'd keep it in a purple folder along with her list of independent reading. The word book and reading list stay next to our DK Merriam-Webster Children's Dictionary.

Now that she has a place to "collect" words, the sweet girl is enthusiastic about doing so. (We did this last year too, in third grade, just in a composition book. It worked well and got the idea rolling, but it's snowballed this year and is really taking off now that she has this little word book to tuck her findings inside.) I've encouraged her to ask about words she comes across when she's reading or when we're reading together. If she doesn't know what it means, we look it up and it goes into the word book.

There are weeks when not much goes into the book. We can have days when we both forget it. But then words will pop up all over the place. "What does that mean?" and "Remember when we were reading so and so and we heard that word?" have become more frequent parts of conversation. She's eager to get to the dictionary (even when it sometimes fails us, as I'm discovering even a very good children's dictionary can do with certain complex or old-fashioned words of the type we come across in older literature...thank heavens for online dictionaries!) and she loves to write them down in her homemade-but-kind-of fancy word book. Just this morning three more words went into the word book: visage, sporadically, and aggravated. Visage came from Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem "Ozymandias" which she's been memorizing. (Sometime I want to devote a whole post to the joys and benefits of poetry memorization!) The other two came in a review lesson in our grammar book.

I share these thoughts, not to disparage any of the more formal programs out there that teach/increase vocabulary in more systematic ways, but rather to share that I think it can be done, especially in the early learning years, in ways that are simple, organic, pleasurable, and that ignite a love of both the sounds and meanings of words.


Erin said...

That sounds like an awesome word book you are building! I remember in the book Waiting for Normal, the narrator - who turned out to have dyslexia - kept a word book every time she came across something unfamiliar and really tried to make it a part of her vocabulary. Then of course there's Art Garfunkel, who's read the entire dictionary and who keeps a running word book of his own containing the words he finds most interesting or beautiful. Word collecting is a fine pastime, for kids and adults alike! :)

Beth said...

Oh, lovely to hear that bit of information about Art Garfunkel! The whole dictionary, eh? Why does that not surprise me? :)

I do love word lists...