A couple of years ago my daughter (six at the time) and I were about to finish a jigsaw puzzle when I held up a piece and said, “Yay, the second to last piece.” Her response: “You mean the penultimate piece, daddy.” I bring this up not to brag about my daughter (alright, maybe a little bit), but to illustrate the impact of adults using the same words (PG and below, of course) with kids that we use with each other.
It’s especially important to do this with students whose vocabularies are underdeveloped. Often, however, teachers talk down to students’ levels rather than risk talking over their heads. I did this too until it occurred to me that the real risk was allowing the gap between students’ actual and potential vocabularies to widen.
And so, just as I committed myself to immersing students in content-specific language (see Immersion Applies to Academic Fluency Too), I also did this with everyday conversational language. And what I soon learned in my classroom—and have seen in dozens of classrooms since—is that adult vocabulary isn’t over students’ heads after all. In fact, students often figure out the meanings of new words from the context in which we use them. And when they don’t, you can usually compensate by including a synonym or definition with the new word. Just recently, for example, I heard an elementary teacher describe a character as “modest—you never hear him boasting or taking credit,” and it was clear from students’ responses to her follow-up questions that they understood “modest.”
There are, of course, many other strategies for developing students’ vocabularies. But the one thing in my experience that transcends those strategies is talking to students just as you would talk to your peers. Do this, and you’ll do for your students what my wife does for our kids (my daughter sure didn’t get “penultimate” from me).