Thursday, January 27, 2011

Amp Up the Vocabulary

Week of January 23—Word Up!
Thursday, January 27—Amp Up the Vocabulary

Some people have the mistaken opinion that the vocabulary in picture books needs to be cranked way down. But who reads most of these books aloud? Adults. Who is learning words and their meanings? The kids who are listening. What is the best way to learn anything? One-on-one.

Educators look at the vocabulary development of children using three tiers. The concept of three-tiered vocabulary is the brainchild of Isabel Beck (author of Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction). The knowledge of these tiers could help with your word selection.

Tier 1 words are mostly basic words that are taught directly. Typically these words do not have multiple meanings.
Examples of Tier 1: book, girl, dog, orange

These words are high frequency (they are read, heard, and spoken frequently). Tier 2 words are often part of adult conversation and literature and because of that, these words influence a child’s speaking and reading. Often Tier 2 words have multiple meanings. These words allow students to describe or speak of things more specifically.
Examples of Tier 2: masterpiece, fortune, industry

Tier 3 words are low-frequency and are more specialized. Most of these words have a single meaning.
Examples of Tier 3: economics, asphalt, Revolutionary War, crepe

(NOTE: Classifying Tier 2 and 3 words is not an exact science. Additionally, remember that verbs and adjectives may also be Tier 1-3 words, but for our purposes I just listed nouns.)

Specialized Vocabulary
Everyone has a passion of some kind. Maybe it’s baseball, horseback riding, dance, NASCAR, gymnastics, painting, or one of a billion other things.

That passion of yours has a specialized vocabulary-words used in the context of the activity that often only the participants know or understnad. This specific vocabulary can be a great way to amp up the vocabulary in a story and make the story more realistic and plausible.

· So, if you’re writing about horseback riding, use: cantor, trot, bridle, saddle, and mane.
· If you’re story is about baseball, use: rosin bag, seventh-inning stretch, infielder, and triple play.
· When you’re writing about painting, use: gesso, palette, mixed media, and montage.

How to Define New Vocabulary Words in a Picture Book
Many picture books use vocabulary that is way above the reading level of our target age group. There are at least five ways to help make the meaning of these new words clear. (Note: For your convenience, I placed the new vocabulary words in the examples below in boldface.)

1.  Define the word in the “flow” of the text. (Notice in the example below the word being defined comes after the definition. Of course, it can also come before the definition.) Example:

“We’ve been crossing the same canal. I think we’re lost! And my blood sugar is low.”
 “We’ll get some ice cream,” promised her mother.
 “It’s called gelato,” replied Olivia.
From Olivia Goes to Venice by Ian Falconer, p. 8

2.  Set the word off in italics.

“For dessert, let’s have parfaits,” my mom says. “That’s French for ice-cream sundaes.”
From Fancy Nancy by Jane O’Connor and Robin Preiss Glasser, p. 24

3.  Share the definition parenthetically.

She bid them ado (that means goodbye).

4.  Imply the meaning through the context.

The pigs were content.
Their neighbors were not as happy.
They were not so content.
From Oink? By Margie Palatini and Henry Cole, p. 4

Each mammoth male was called a bull.
They liked to keep their tummies full.
Bulls ate and ate from morn till night,
They had a mammoth appetite.
From Mammoths’ on the Move by Lisa Wheeler and Kurt Cyrus, p. 23

5.  Define a word through an illustration

“The night is long and long,” says a chickadee.”
(Take my word for it, there’s a lovely illustration of a chickadee on the next page!)
From The Longest Night by Marion Dane Bauer and Ted Lewin, pp.20-21

Using Foreign Languages
You can see from some of the examples above how foreign language words areused in many picture books. Children love these new and unfamiliar words (that often sound really fun and/or funny). These words can help create setting (as in gelato above) or introduce an intriguing synonym (parfaits), or even show differences in characters, for example:

            Jack Lifted all three babies into the nest.
            “Buenas noches, Mama,” said the baby chick.
            “Bonne nuit, Maman,” said the baby duck.
            “Sweet dreams, Ma,” said the baby goose.
            From The Perfect Nest by Catherine Friend and John Manders, p. 34.

WARNING! Many picture book experts advice writers to avoid writing in a dialect or creating stereotypes of any kind.

A Final Word
I can’t speak for editors and agents, but I can speak for teachers and I can tell you that we don’t want writers to shy away from vocabulary. Picture books can introduce vocabulary that is new to children—as long as the context or illustrations gives clues to the meaning of the words. After all, that is how vocabulary is learned. You hear it, then you figure out the meaning, then you try using it yourself.

It’s Your Turn!

1. Ok, I double-dog dare you to amp up the vocabulary in your latest manuscript.
2. Grab some picture books and explore the vocabulary!

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