The following excerpt in its entirety comes from
WOW! Words: Building Children’s Powerful Oral Vocabularies (Ages 4–7), Preface, Copyright © 2011 Babs Bell Hajdusiewicz; Good Year Books.
Melanie’s hand shot up at the sound from the wall speaker. She knew our principal’s first words of greeting would be: “Good morning! I have some special announcements. . . .” Still, Melanie waited patiently till the principal had finished.
“I know! I know!” she bubbled. “He could say ‘specific’ announcements.” Then she added, “I was really patient, right?”
“Me, too!” said Wade. “I was patient. I have to go to the bathroom.”
The school day had barely begun. Yet, Melanie had already used two WOW! Words™ in correct contexts. And Wade had wowed us in more ways than one. Not only had he used a big word; he had waited patiently. Weeks earlier, I had chosen to introduce that particular WOW! Word in hopes it might motivate Wade and some others to improve on a behavior or two. Indeed, my students talked confidently. However, when presented with pencil-and-paper tasks, these ten- to fourteen-year-old talkers struggled with skills expected of first graders. They owned WOW! Words, though, and they sought every opportunity to talk using those big words.
Focusing on Oral Language
[The WOW! Words] book is about the oral language learning of thousands of toddlers to teens––some like Melanie and Wade, others with average to gifted abilities––whose talking prowess with big words could be directly traced to the use of WOW! Words, an approach to vocabulary learning that practices intentional oral modeling of big words.
WOW! Words: Building Children’s Powerful Oral Vocabularies (Ages 4–7) [book] presents child- and time-tested tools for building children’s speaking vocabularies such that listeners listen up . . . and invariably exclaim, “Wow!” Focusing totally on oral language––listening and speaking––WOW! Words [book] invites every child to be a winner, regardless of natural ability or learned skills. The goal of this book is to explain the rationale for using WOW! Words and to present instruction in the form of daily lessons for teachers, parents, and caregivers who spend time with children ages four though seven.
Inviting Every Child to Win
WOW! Words [book content] presents vocabulary learning that works to level the playing field for all children. It’s about developing powerful speakers, regardless of children’s abilities or their proficiencies in listening and speaking or reading and writing. Unlike customary vocabulary lessons and their accompanying assessments, the vocabulary learning presented in [the] book invites every child to experience success in hearing and saying carefully selected big words used in meaningful and useful contexts. WOW! Words [book content] is about building children’s confidence to proudly use big words in correct contexts to express themselves orally. It’s about engaging children in conversations, in school and at home––conversations that model big words in ways that invite children to adopt those words. Additionally, and very importantly, [the] book is about inspiring and facilitating every child’s daily use of powerful vocabulary with all the ease and self-confidence of a professional. And [the] book is about you and how you can become a catalyst for change in the lives of children––to assist children toward learning language and toward feeling good about themselves while becoming the most powerful and confident speakers they can be.
Discovering Children’s Need for Vocabulary
WOW! Words [book content] has been time-tested, allowing numerous opportunities to observe children incorporate WOW! Words into daily activities. Although my interests in such language learning likely took root in my own childhood when my grandfather told me stories and rhymes, it was during practicum classes in undergraduate school that I focused on how children learn language. My eagerness for teaching grew with each new assignment that took me into real classrooms to learn from real teachers and real kids using ideas and strategies I’d only read about in books. I observed children succeeding, or not, in vocabulary and spelling drills. I watched as some kids read and wrote with ease, while others struggled with basic words. And I noted how children’s classroom performances frequently framed how they connected with their peers, inside and outside the classroom.
During practicums, I’d teach prescribed lessons, and sometimes I gained permission to try out an original idea. Some worked well; other ideas needed more polish in their content and/or presentation. After all, I was learning how to teach. Interestingly, though, these hours of practice would mark the onset of a teaching continuum––one that I would spend an entire career nourishing and developing––around core beliefs that children’s foundational need for vocabulary, and the knowledge embedded in vocabulary, could be presented in an enticing way such that every child becomes a winner.
Seeking Ways to Reach and Teach
Some days, reality set in—such as when a supervisor suggested I work with a group of second graders in math. After reading the textbook and teacher guide, I knew what to do. But nothing worked with these kids, who were not just struggling in math but who were also struggling in reading and almost every other subject. Rampant misbehaviors added challenge. I remember thinking that perhaps my lofty goals were just that. Learning for these kids wasn’t going to happen, at least not “by the book.” I’d felt confident teaching language arts lessons. So far, my studies and experiences had shown me that children needed word familiarity and the knowledge that came with words. To this day, I point out to teachers and parents what a listener or reader gets from every word, even a, an, or the––little words that suggest a noun or naming word is likely coming next. My studies had taught me that success in the content areas (and on tests) relies heavily on a child’s being able to read and write basic vocabulary and subject-specific vocabulary.
So there I was . . . asked to teach some second graders who had little interest in math, nor much else that had to do with school and learning. Searching for wisdom, I studied these children. I looked over their test scores. I listened to how they talked. I noticed how they looked at my feet when we talked. Using the teacher’s guide for math, I planned a lesson for these kids. And though my lesson scarcely resembled the guide, I felt desperate. These kids needed to learn, and they needed to be able to look me in the eye.
Teaching Math . . . and Vocabulary . . . and a Whole Lot More
What happened next set the stage for other new beginnings. One lesson plan became three as these students showed keen interest and asked for more. We spent time scouring the building and grounds, looking for and naming geometric shapes. We created shapes with similar properties. We named and counted each shape’s corners and sides. As soon as these children understood basic concepts, I slipped in some big-talking words–– meaningful and useful vocabulary words that children might speak in correct context but not be expected to read nor write––these particular words being some I’d learned in a high school geometry class only a few years earlier. Now, corners were sometimes called angles, further classified as inside or outside corners, and then labeled acute, obtuse, or straight. These second graders grabbed onto these big-talking words and asked for more. They led the way to measure line segments, which soon became further classified as being parallel or non-parallel. Although my lessons showed but a tinge of resemblance to the math guide, these kids were learning math, and much more. Their talking vocabularies had grown exponentially. And, interestingly, they now looked me squarely in the eye when they talked, proudly using all that new vocabulary.
My supervisor shared my excitement and encouraged me to “stretch my wings,” while also reminding that the students would be tested over the school’s adopted curriculum. I heard the expectation. I wanted to please, and I wanted to graduate with good grades. I also wanted to make a difference in these kids’ learning lives. I planned more lessons, carefully sculpting each to include the prescribed curriculum, along with ways I’d hope to incorporate the fun of geometry and big words. I tucked in notes about new big math words I might add. That term ended on a high note, both for my students—who now approached learning (and test taking) with greater interest and confidence––and for me.
Intentional Oral Modeling
During my student teaching the next semester, I found another opportunity to try out my intentional oral modeling approach, this time with three fourth-grade boys who barely recognized basic sight words. As with the second graders, these kids’ failures in language arts subjects had led to failures in word-heavy social studies, science, and health classes as well. I noticed how math sometimes presented a glimmer of hope for them, until story problems required reading skills. And I’d noted the boys seemed to own limited speaking vocabularies. These ten-year-olds with average abilities were breathing in failure and breathing out hopelessness. Something positive needed to happen.
I began to model the use of a really big, but useful and meaningful, word in conversation each week. I used the word and its forms in all sorts of meaningful ways––orally. After introducing a word, such as official, I’d toss out a challenge: “So, Fellows, who’s going to officiate next week when I’m not here?” After more weeks and more big words, I’d announce, “Someone’s being a real curmudgeon today!” To help the boys retain and use all the big words, along with the ideas from the many read-alouds I’d shared, I’d pose questions, like, “Who feels empowered with fortitude like Hercules today?” Never did I ask these boys to read or write those big words. We just talked “big”! The bigger the talk during our conversations, the bigger the words those boys used in stories they told as I wrote—and the wider grew their smiles of enjoyment and self-satisfaction! Our little project lasted for several weeks, but it was quickly evident that all four of us were winners. As with the second graders, these fourth-grade boys now looked me in the eye when we conversed. They talked with greater confidence than ever before. They interacted more confidently––and less combatively––with classmates. They knew how to use big words. And when they talked, their classmates (and teacher) exclaimed, “Wow!” Soon, the entire class joined us to hear and then say those “big-talking words” as students liked to call them.
Watching Children “Dance” to Learn
Students thrived in this “oral language dance,” our unique listening and speaking experience with language where every child, regardless of academic performance, could participate and come away filled with success and confidence. Children knew they were successful speakers when their listeners paid them respectful attention. And, without fail, their listeners exclaimed, “WOW!” Thus, the name “WOW! Words” seemed well-suited for this new and exciting experience with oral language. As an acronym, “WOW” aptly described this vocabulary-learning approach that focused on each big word’s introduction: It was, indeed, our Word Of the Week. Each successive year’s use with a new group of talkers brought with it new insights. I learned to select big words that were not only useful and meaningful for children but also presented challenge. After all, nary a listener is likely to say, “Wow!” upon hearing a seven-year-old tell how a ride at the amusement park was awesome. On the other hand, hearing a two- or three-year-old’s correct use of awesome would grab any listener’s ear as being just that: Awesome!
WOW! Words lessons became routine now. On each Monday, without any real fanfare, I’d make conversation with my students and casually introduce that week’s new word. I’d then use that word and its forms in varying contexts every day that week. Where applicable, I’d set up activities and work areas that focused on a WOW! Word. I’d point out a word’s use or show pictures illustrating its meaning. And I’d invite my students to do some “eavesdropping” homework and report any overheard uses of a WOW! Word. Some students needed my help to include the word in conversation, since the goal was, indeed, for every child to feel totally comfortable participating in this oral language dance. The next Monday, I’d similarly introduce a new big word, while continuing to make conversation and plan activities around the previous week’s word. Focusing on one new WOW! Word for an entire week proved especially fruitful, because time allowed students to hear and use the word in various contexts. It also allowed children to try that word in all sorts of settings––the classroom, lunchroom, and playground and at home with family members.
Assessing Growth and Involving Families
I soon began sending home information about WOW! Words, emphasizing our oral focus. I didn’t want any well-meaning family member to expect a child to read or write a WOW! Word. Family members reported they liked how homework around a WOW! Word could be completed easily while on-the-go. And in some homes, each new word meant more conversation took place––increasing interest and literacy success for all family members.
Weeks passed, and big words piled up—orally, that is. Assessment was easy: I just needed to listen to my students talk. Record keeping was similarly easy. At first, I merely recorded the WOW! Words on our classroom calendar, but each year’s use brought new ideas. One year, children’s oral dancing with WOW! Words gained a “look.” By the end of the year, we had built a caterpillar character across our classroom’s wall, adding a new segment for each week’s WOW! Word. Another year, children asked to write each new WOW! Word on its segment. Still another class’s enthusiasm for WOW! Words invited talkers and listeners to mark a dot on a word’s segment for each time children heard or used that WOW! Word.
Teachers and parents attending my seminars and staff-development trainings have incorporated WOW! Words into their daily living with children in classrooms and homes. A kindergarten teacher received “WOW!” exclamations from colleagues (and me) when she reported her success with intentional oral modeling of WOW! Words. She told how she’d asked her student why he looked so sad, and that he had replied, “I’m full of contrition. I promised, but I forgot.” Indeed, WOW! Words has been instrumental in developing impressive speaking vocabularies for many children, including my own.
Children’s powerful speaking successes are at the core of my sharing WOW! Words: Building Children’s Powerful Oral Vocabularies (Ages 4–7). In addition, [the] book responds to hundreds of requests from teachers and parents wanting hands-on tools to put WOW! Words on children’s tongues during the critically important early years of children’s language development. [The] book also represents the fulfillment of my long-held career goal––to partner with those of you who seek to invite every young child to participate in an oral vocabulary experience that offers success and self-confidence, both as a learner and as a powerful speaker who never fails to capture a listener’s attention in a positive way.
WOW! Words is a trademark of Babs Bell Hajdusiewicz.
No part of the above copyrighted excerpt may be reproduced in any form or by any means. All rights reserved.