Sunday, December 13, 2009

Vocabulary for Preschoolers: The Martha Speaks Program (Biemiller)

This post is courtesy of Dr. Andrew Biemiller, Professor Emeritus, University of Toronto. Andy is an eminent vocabulary researcher and the author of Words Worth Teaching: Closing the Vocabulary Gap (see references). For more about his research and his book on words worthy of instructional time in elementary grades, also see the post by Michael Graves.

By the end of the primary grades, English-speaking children with the weakest vocabularies (lowest 25%) are already four years behind those with the largest vocabularies (highest 25%).1  English Language Learners are often even further behind. What can be done to reduce this “gap”? 

Clearly, schools could do more.  The gap widens during the primary grades.  Little vocabulary is taught in kindergarten, grade one, or grade two.  I know, teachers will assure me that they teach a lot of vocabulary.  Maybe 50 or 100 word meanings.  But each year disadvantaged children need to acquire 300 or 400 more meanings than “average” English speaking children.  At present, they usually acquire 300 or 400 fewer meanings in the primary grades! Until now, primary grade educators have left vocabulary development to parents.  So middle class parents have provided lots of language in the normal course of living at home.  Less advantaged homes have provided a lot less.2 

One support for less advantaged children could be television.  Children watch a lot of television.  But to teach vocabulary, we have to do more than assume children will acquire words from exposure.

WGBH in Boston has developed a program intended to support vocabulary development.  They adopted Susan Meddaugh’s books about Martha—a talking dog.  These books provide both good stories and many opportunities to explain needed words.  There are six books about Martha.  The television program incorporates these stories and adds many more.  The series is now in its second year on PBS television, and third year of production.  I am an advisor to this program. 

The series has drawn a wide audience, mainly of children ages 3 to 7.  Research to date has shown that children learn words from the Martha Speaks shows at about the same rate as they learn words from stories read in school—without vocabulary instruction.  In other words, children acquire the meanings of about 10% of the words explained.  This is not as high as we would hope for, but is a lot better than having no story experience, which many children experience.

At present, we are hoping to increase the rate of word learning by highlighting words explained.  We are also hoping that teachers might reinforce some of the vocabulary addressed in the program.  WGBH has created a video for teachers on ways of doing this.

A lot of children need to learn a lot more vocabulary.  Past research in classrooms shows that most of these children can learn more vocabulary from meaningful texts.   We have a pretty good idea what vocabulary is needed.3  Now I’m hoping that parents, teachers, and Martha Speaks will all contribute to better vocabulary growth!

For videos and background on the television program, see the Martha Speaks web site. Visit this link for parent and teacher materials. Also, note the series of short videos called “The Experts Speak".

1  Biemiller, A. (2005). Size and sequence in vocabulary development: Implications for choosing words for primary grade vocabulary instruction.  In A. Hiebert. & M. Kamil,  (Eds.), Teaching and learning vocabulary: Bringing research to practice  (pp 223-242).   Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum. 

2  Hart, B., & Risley, T. (1995).  Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children.  Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co. 

3  One good listing of needed words is in my book, Words Worth Teaching, available from SRA/McGraw-Hill:  Biemiller, A. (2009).  Words worth teaching: Closing the vocabulary gap.  Columbus, OH:  SRA/McGraw-Hill.


  1. E. Thompson12/13/2009

    Martha Speaks airs at 7:30 in the morning in our area, so we can have the school day care supervisors turn it on for all the early drop-offs.

  2. Jennifer Franklin12/14/2009

    Good to know. Books are best, but if one does watch TV...

  3. Anonymous12/15/2009

    I try my best to build vocabulary, but parents need to help. How can we get parents to help? It's overwhelming.

  4. Hello commenters,
    Being antedeluvian, I haven't got an URL or other high-tech connection. I can only respond to comments with a comment of my own.
    Kids are going to watch TV, like it or not. As Jennfier says, good to get them on useful TV such as Sesame St. and Martha Speaks.
    WGBH and I are hoping to get parents to participate partly by watching Martha with their children at least once a week, and talk about some of the words explained. Cheers, Andy Biemiller

  5. Carmela Fazzino-Farah12/20/2009

    For preschoolers, Super Why is wonderful. The characters have "the power to read" and do their part to impart that power to their audience. (In fact the other proclaimed: "Mommy, I have the power to read!")
    Chock-full of phonics basics and day my 3-yr old vocabulary-building activities all hidden in a story-line in which the audience helps to figure out the solution - a word or phrase - to a problem.
    For more info, see:

  6. I just saw SuperWhy for the first time. Looks quite good. Kudos to PBS for Martha Speaks and Super Why!

  7. Erin Milton2/11/2017

    Building vocabulary should be just as important, if not more important, than learning how to spell words. Weekly spelling lists are given in the primary and intermediate grades and I think the schools should do more to enforce weekly vocabulary lists for learning through direct instruction and read alouds with mentor texts rich in vocabulary.

    1. Yes, building a rich vocabulary is key. Further, knowledge of word meaning and word spelling, including morphological structures, can reinforce one another.

  8. I believe it is excellent to incorporate TV with learning vocabulary. Kids that just have no desire to read usually have a major desire to watch the TV. Having kids watch programs like Martha Speaks, and Super Why is a fabulous tool for parents to use each day. This is better than not having any exposure at all. I also read that encouraging parents to turn on the closed-captioning helps kids learn to read as well. Seeing the words as the characters speak them is a strong tool.


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