Sunday, September 5, 2010

Preschool: Where the Wild Words Are (Paulson)

Lucy Hart Paulson, Ed.D., CCC-SLP, is a communication specialist for young children. She is on the faculty of the Communicative Sciences and Disorders Department at The University of Montana, sharing responsibilities for teaching, supervising, research, and outreach. Lucy provides professional development for a variety of audiences and is the lead author of the Early Childhood Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (EC LETRS), Building Early Literacy and Language Skills, a resource and activity guide for young children, and  Good Talking Words, a social communication skills program for preschool and kindergarten.

Children’s books are one of the most valuable resources for developing and expanding language and early literacy skills in preschool and in primary grades. Using thematic units revolving around a central storybook is an effective strategy in early childhood education settings. Storybooks are read repeatedly during the thematic unit time period. With multiple readings, children have many valuable opportunities to learn unfamiliar words in the context of language, often with the support of wonderful illustrations. These new words, within the language structure of the sentences, give children wonderful exposure to the complexities and nuances of language. 

Children’s books are where the wild, rare, and unfamiliar words are. Check it out for yourself. Analyze your favorite children’s book. Before reading it for the nth time, predict how many words may be unfamiliar to young children, and then predict how many words there are in the longest sentence within the text.

Here are a few of my favorite books. For each book, I provide a summary of unfamiliar vocabulary and the word count per sentence:

Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak (1963), is a classic children’s book with a powerful social emotional message. There are more than 20 words that may be unfamiliar to young children including wolf, suit, mischief, vines, private, gnashed, tame, rumpus, start, and lonely. This story has only nine sentences; three have 60 or more words with the longest being 75(!); four have 20 to 30 words; and the two shortest sentences have 9 and 15 words.

The Big Red Barn, a classic story by Margaret Wise Brown (1956), follows animals in rhyming text through their day in the barnyard as they make noises, play, and go to sleep. A quick count results in more than 20 words that may be unfamiliar to young children including great, golden, squeal, weather vane, rustling, and sailed. This story has a few short sentences. However, most of the sentences contain more than 10 words, and four sentences have 20 to 25 words.

Another popular book, especially during spring, is The Very Hungry Caterpillar, by Eric Carle (1969, 1987). Concepts embedded in this pattern story of a caterpillar turning into a butterfly through metamorphosis include size, the days of the week, counting, and wise eating habits. Nearly 20 words may be unfamiliar to young children. Five of the sentences are 6 to 8 words in length, nine of the sentences contain 13-19 words, and the longest sentence is 40 words.

The Mitten, by Jan Brett (1989), is an adapted version of a Ukrainian folktale. This story contains more than 60 potentially unfamiliar words such as discovered, mole, snuffling, jostled, argue, disappeared, attracted, commotion, drowsy, lumbered, bulged, force, scattered, distance, silhouetted, and an abstract meaning of sound. The sentence length ranges from 4 to 36 words but most sentences are longer, comprised of at least 13 words.

Are children capable of comprehending so many unfamiliar words when they listen to a story? Are they able to learn them? Research suggests that not only are children able to learn new words at a surprising rate, exposure to unfamiliar words seems to “prime” their brains for learning more. An interesting phenomenon in young children is called fast mapping (first described by Carey and Bartlett in 1978) in which a young child may be exposed to a new word or concept in one salient instance, or with limited exposure, and can make an educated guess about the meaning within the context. The child is able to create a mental image of that word. In theory, this phenomenon begins during the language development stage when toddlers’ vocabulary seems to explode and continue through the preschool years. By re-reading the same book to children several times, new vocabulary words and related concepts are reinforced in the mental lexicon. (See How to Read to Children to Optimize Word Learning).

In a study conducted in 1988 looking at vocabulary in a variety of print and media contexts, Hayes and Ahrens identified that children’s books contained an average of 30.1 unfamiliar words per 1000. In contrast, educational television programs such as Sesame Street had only two unfamiliar words per 1000. It would be interesting to make a similar comparison today, 20 years later, to see if there have been changes in vocabulary in newer children’s books and if the writers of educational programs are including more complex vocabulary. One television program written with sophisticated vocabulary for young children is the Martha Speaks Program (prior post by Andy Biemiller).

The context is important in learning multiple meanings. For example, in The Mitten, the little boy’s grandmother, Baba, wants to see that he is “safe and sound.” This represents a new meaning for sound, not something heard. Also, Big Red Barn ends with the animals being “sound asleep” which is another meaning for sound, having nothing to do with the sounds animals make.

Using sophisticated storybooks is one of the best opportunities for young children to learn vocabulary and complex sentence structures needed for competent oral language use. An important job for us, as their language guides and facilitators, is to intentionally plan how to use those words to help make children’s learning wild, wonderful, and powerful.

Finally, it is important to read (and re-read) both fiction and nonfiction to young children. Fiction helps children develop story grammar and vocabulary. Nonfiction helps children develop vocabulary and content knowledge—something that becomes increasingly important as children advance in elementary school.


Carey, S., & Bartlett, E. (1978). Acquiring a single new word: Proceedings of the Stanford Child Language. Papers and Reports on Child Language Development 15, 17-29.

Hayes, D. P.,  & Ahrens, M. G. (1988). Vocabulary simplification for children: A special case of “motherese”? Journal of Child Language, 15(2), 395-410.


  1. Anonymous9/05/2010

    Thanks for shining the light on some of my favorite picture books. My children loved The Mitten.

    Sesame Street is much more educational than most television programs children watch.

  2. Thank you, Lucy. The books you highlight are treasures. I also loved Mike Mulligan And His Steam Shovel, and The Little House.

    You make an important point in reminding us to read books multiple times to children. How many times? I suppose it depends on the book and the child, but would you say at least 3 times?

    I have read (from Biemiller) that repeatedly reading the same story is more effective in preschool through first grade, but by second grade, while still effective, the effect size is not as large. It is important to discuss the words in context, too, after reading the whole story through at least once.

  3. I teach at a school with a VERY high Hispanic population and I am always looking for ways to help teach vocabulary. I actually just read where the wild things are last week because we were studying Fantasy. Children's books are very powerful in teaching vocabulary. Thanks for the reminder! Love your blog!

  4. Thanks, Ginger. I like your blog, too. I have, in fact, showcased it as "a blog of interest" in the sidebar. Clearly, you are a creative teacher!

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