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UW Professor Develops Concept to Improve Vocabulary Instruction for Children

December 11, 2018
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Patrick Manyak

Having a poor vocabulary at a young age can impede a student’s long-term academic success. Significantly, this problem disproportionately affects students from low-income and non-English-speaking families.

Patrick Manyak, associate professor of elementary and early childhood education at the University of Wyoming, and his collaborators recently detailed a concept they developed, “Teaching Vocabulary for Application (TVA),” in an article published in The Reading Teacher, a journal of the International Literacy Association.

TVA is a component of the Vocabulary and Language Enhancement program (VALE), the comprehensive framework the team has developed to teach vocabulary. The program has been developed as part of a multiyear research project conducted by Manyak and a group of teachers from Wyoming and Colorado for students in grades 2-5.

The traditional method for teaching vocabulary has centered on teaching students the meanings of a set of words and then quickly moving on to a new set. What makes VALE unique is a commitment to promote students’ use of small sets of new, high-value words in their academic speech and writing throughout the entire school year.

“VALE is designed to address quality, quantity and strategy dimensions of word learning,” Manyak says. “Students need to study high-value words in a deep way -- this is quality. They also need to be exposed to a large number of new words, which is quantity. Finally, they need strategies to become better independent word learners.”

TVA is part of the quality component of VALE and involves carefully structured, guided practice that enables students to apply the new words in classroom discussion and in writing.

“TVA instruction sticks with small, carefully chosen sets of words over an extended time and involves students in exercises and activities that prompt students to apply the words in speech and writing,” Manyak says.

One of the VALE team’s focuses for TVA instruction is connectives: high-value academic words such as “although” and “even though” that enhance students’ writing. Each day, during a week of instruction, students imitate a model sentence using “although” and then are prompted to write several connected sentences about a general topic, such as “a person in a storm” -- and one of their sentences must begin with “although.” The following week, the teacher might repeat the same routine, this time using “even though.”

“This is brief, fast-paced, guided practice, so the teacher can use the routine four or five days a week,” Manyak says. “Ongoing, guided practice really helps students grow into proficient use of the sophisticated terms.”

Manyak has documented the valuable outcomes of TVA instruction through observational field notes, analysis of student writing and teacher commentary. Findings from his analysis demonstrate how TVA instruction can enhance student writing, stimulate rich oral discussion and heighten students’ awareness of words throughout the school day.

In order to better serve non-native English speakers, Manyak has been working with seven teachers in Jackson to implement the VALE approach in English and Spanish in the Teton County School District’s dual-immersion school. This work is funded through a grant provided by the UW Literacy Research Center and Clinic.

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