Concept Development and Word Meanings (page 4)
Words are just oral or written symbols for concepts that we have developed through various avenues of experience. The relationship of the words that stand for the concepts to the concepts themselves is arbitrary. A word means what a group of people agree that it means. That is why words are easily added to our language through coinage of new terms and why words that have been a part of our language for years change in meaning over time or add new meanings.
The idea that words are not inherent in their objects must be developed by young children. Five-and six-year-olds gradually make this discovery. Children who know more than one language learn this more readily because they know more than one word that stands for an object or idea. Learning the different meanings of multiple-meaning words in English, such as bear meaning "to carry" or "an animal," helps native English speakers acquire this concept. Students in the intermediate grades may develop this concept more firmly by reading and discussing the book Frindle by Andrew Clements.
Many words are learned by children through listening to their parents, other adults, and siblings talk about the things around them. Children experiment with using words and with seeing what effect the words have on those around them. Most people have encountered a small child repeating an unacceptable word or phrase for its obvious shock value. Although their understanding of the words that they use may be incomplete when they first attempt to use them, their trial-and-error method of usage eventually leads to a degree of mastery over the terms.
Children do not just randomly imitate the sounds they hear. They "select from the flow of language those words and sound patterns which have meaning to them: mama, milk, daddy" (Forester & Mickelson, 1979, p. 76). The first words are largely connected to concrete objects and events, but gradually the vocabularies will expand from a base of mainly nouns and verbs to include other word types. Chomsky (1979) points out that the most important part of the language learning that children do is not imitative; it is constructive, taking language rules that have been internalized by exposure to language usage in their environment and applying the rule system that they have inferred to produce new results. For example, when something comes apart, a child may say it is "untogether" because of the understanding she has of the function of the prefix un- in other words. Even though adults view such a usage as an error, it shows the child's evolving knowledge of language structure and is a very reasonable deduction in the early stages of language learning.
Children learn much vocabulary from listening to the speech around them. You can promote vocabulary growth by not "talking down" to your students. You should use precise terminology as you discuss things in class. You should encourage curiosity about words and their meanings to develop word consciousness (Graves & Watts-Taffe, 2002). Calling attention to excellent word choices in literature selections is a good method of fostering word consciousness. The book Miss Alaineus: A Vocabulary Disaster by Debra Frasier offers an excellent vehicle for talking about word meanings and possibilities for misunderstanding words and their meanings.
Read-aloud sessions by both parents and teachers help students to build vocabulary knowledge. As parents read stories aloud to their children, they may casually define unfamiliar words or help the child make connections with the unfamiliar words and events and their everyday experiences. Teachers may have more structured plans for teaching vocabulary through read-alouds.
Generally, more concrete (direct) experiences with objects and ideas result in development of deeper understanding of the words associated with that object or idea. Eating fresh pineapple develops a sensory base for understanding the concept of pineapple that showing pictures of the pineapple cannot equal. Even describing the taste, appearance, and other characteristics of the pineapple for someone does not add enough sensory input to equal letting that person taste, touch, smell, and see the pineapple. Using manipulatives in class to work on vocabulary and concepts is a way to provide concrete experiences. For example, students can measure feet, inches, and yards with tape measures and rulers to develop concepts of length and measure cups, pints, and quarts with measuring cups for measures of volume. They can pour water on cotton balls to show absorption or stretch rubber bands to demonstrate elasticity (Petrick, 1992). Experiences that are not concrete are called vicarious experiences. Vicarious experiences do not involve all of the senses - perhaps sight alone is involved (as with still pictures) or sight and hearing (as with a videotape).
Words are of little use to people if they do not represent known concepts, for under these circumstances they are just meaningless sounds. Therefore, if we are to add words to children's vocabularies, we must ascertain if the related concepts are known by the children, and, if they are not known, we must attempt to develop them.
The concepts that people have are based on their backgrounds of experiences. Children with limited experiences have fewer concepts to which they can attach vocabulary terms. For these children, concept development becomes a natural part of vocabulary instruction.
Concepts develop in interrelated clusters. If you are trying to teach the concept of fishing, you have to relate such concepts as rod, reel, bait, hook, cast, line, and so on.
Words that have concrete referents (treadmill) are easier to learn than are abstract words (fitness). Words that evoke mental images (rhinoceros) are easier to learn than words that do not (jealous). Words that relate to students' experiences (thoroughbred for Kentucky students) are easier than ones that do not (tundra for Kentucky students). Structure words, such as what or though, are generally harder to learn than are nouns and verbs. Children in first grade generally have structure words in their listening and speaking vocabularies already, but may not yet have them in their reading and writing vocabularies. If all other things are equal, it is probably wise to teach first the words that are needed earliest or most frequently for completing school assignments or for activities in daily life.
Children may have less differentiated meanings for words than do adults. They may respond to the word take in the same way they respond to the word buy. They have the correct direction for the transaction, but do not include the necessary exchange of money. As time passes, they add more of the adult distinctions to the word meanings (Anderson & Freebody, 1981).
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